My volunteer job at the Bifengxia Panda Center was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience. It began each day with a ride up through lush green mountains and valleys that evoked a mystical and intensely peaceful aura. Upon arrival the first day I met the panda keeper under whom I would be working and received my coveralls and badge. My assignments included cleaning the outdoor and indoor enclosures for three adult pandas and supplying fresh bamboo to them. I also helped prepare carrots, apples, “panda bread” and tender bamboo shoots, which I fed to my pandas three times a day. I was so impressed by their good manners, as they patiently waited to be fed, chewed and enjoyed each bite until the last bit was gone. I sat quite close to their indoor enclosure, and all three stared gently and intently into my eyes.
We had plenty of time to visit other pandas especially those in “kindergarten” and the babies in incubators. The antics that I observed were adorable. One little one was about 30 feet up a tree, when his keeper summoned him for an afternoon milk treat. On command he roused from his slumber and scooted down to lap up his treat The incubator babies were so sweet. One had been rejected at birth by his mom and was being raised in the nursery. Others were being fed bottles by the staff. Hopefully. they will reintroduce the little one to his mama when the time is right. Another baby was lying on his back hiccupping, and his little body seemed to levitate each time.
The Chinese visitors to Bifengxia were keenly interested in why Westerners were working so closely with the pandas and keepers. They would gather in groups and click away at both the volunteers and the pandas.
The highlight of my three days was a private, quiet (albeit short) visit with the incomparably handsome Tai Shan, who was born in Washington, D.C. He lives in an area that is away from the public to ensure that he won’t be stressed too much. It was a joy to see him looking as beautiful as ever. I hope that he becomes a father some day. Can you imagine his cubs?
When I returned home (reluctantly), I was amazed at the reaction of everyone to my stories and pictures. They brought wonderment and joy and many questions from everyone young and old including the usually sober customs’ agents.
Now I wait excitedly to see our new little girl, who lives four blocks away from my apartment in D.C. Visiting our zoo won’t be like being in Bifengxia, but the baby’s imminent debut will be thrilling nonetheless. Who knows? Maybe in a few years I’ll be visiting Tai Shan and his little sister in China.