Thursday, April 3, 2014

Episode 15: Pandas a Go-Go

Pandas a Go-Go

Living in a cave or under a rock would likely still not protect you from the connection between pandas ("Da Song Mao") and China. My initial reference linking China and pandas was when I was 9 years old and Richard Nixon was all over the news for something good: shaking hands with Chairman Mao and
acquiring Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing for the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Many folks remember Nixon for Watergate. But, at nine, the thing that stuck in my grey matter was Nixon, China, Pandas.

I remember various photos of the seemingly happy Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. There were also periodic news reports of the poor couple’s inability to mate, or mate successfully (several pregnancies resulted in dead or quick-to-die cubs). A match made by Mao and Nixon. No wonder they couldn’t get it on with any good results. Theirs seems like a tragic international love story, but one that riveted many people: the panda couple brought to America only to suffer a sad life of frustrated breeding. Something in the bamboo, I presume?

One would think that pandas would be everywhere in China. Not so. Not so. In fact, very few exist in the wild, their habitat destroyed by “progress and development,” their eons-old mating habits a futile exercise in an ever-shrinking gene pool. If one wants to see pandas in China, one needs to go to Chengdu, specifically the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

Chengdu is plane ride (about 90 minutes) or a train ride (about 12 hours) from Xi’an. We chose the plane due to time constraints.

If you were paying attention to the news last week, you knew that Michelle Obama was in China. She came on a “girls’ trip” (daughters + grandma). There was a stop in Xi’an for one day (see the Warriors, walk around the Old City Wall, meet some high school students for some softball Q and A: check, check, check, and moving on . . .). I am fairly certain that the cultural highlight of their trip to China was not Xi’an, The Great Wall, or the Forbidden City. It was a visit to see the pandas, at the preserve in Chengdu.

We landed in Chengdu a short 48 hours after Michelle et. al. left. Unlike the First Lady, we were not offered the opportunity to feed the pandas apples on sticks. But that is OK. We were still wowed and wooed by the big black and white bears (although we were told they have a completely different genetic lineage from other bears, so can we really call them "bears"?) who ambled around and lounged about like sloths. Even if we didn’t feed them an apple, Z got to get up close and personal with a baby named HeXing.
For a “donation” (a fairly steep donation, to be sure), you can cuddle and hold a baby panda while it slurps honey off the end of a bamboo shoot. The moment I booked the trip to Chengdu, Zephaniah could not stop talking about how he was going to cuddle a baby panda. He had various ongoing fantasies

Panda Kissing
about what it would be like, what he would say, what the panda would think, and how much they would both love each other for those few minutes of cross-species ecstasy.

The donation to hold a panda was a foregone conclusion before we even packed our bags to go to Chengdu.

I was skeptical about the preserve, being no fan of zoos or any other type of animal enclosure (see my post in October “Trip to the Zoo”). However, I was surprised and impressed by the Chengdu preserve. Not only was the area a beautiful idyll of bamboo, trees, and forested paths but there were several pavilions throughout the preserve devoted to education on the history of pandas, breeding habits, what the scientists were working on at the preserve, and why the preserve was essential to keep the pandas from disappearing from the planet. There were labs that could be observed in action. The panda nursery was off limits, but for a few minutes in the morning, the curtains parted and we could view baby pandas while they were being fed and handled. The areas where the pandas roamed were better than any I have seen, much better than a zoo – lots of natural landscape as well as human-made benefits added for panda pleasure (structures to climb and trees to perch in).

After moving through several of the educational pavilions and watching a documentary on the mating and birthing habits of pandas, it was abundantly clear to me that if humans had not intervened, we would no longer have this species on the planet. Development has destroyed much of panda habitat; add to that a small gene pool that creates a real barrier to breeding healthy offspring. These twin curses will quickly result in the demise of any species.

The scientists who work at the preserve are most interested in creating healthy babies. They have gone to great lengths to make that happen. Each panda’s genetics are mapped and they are then presented with mates which are least like them genetically. But that is only the beginning.  For pandas who are raised at the preserve, they really don’t “get” how the whole mating thing goes. Most animals learn by watching other animals mate. But with a small population, there is little chance pandas at the preserve will happen upon a couple of pandas coupling. Therefore, they are more in the dark about reproduction than a couple of Jehovah Witness newlyweds.

Ke Lin (female ) watching a mating video to get the idea
Last year the scientists tried a little “adult panda video” strategy: they videotaped a pair of pandas having some adult fun and then played the video for a female who was having troubles allowing her male mate to mount her. It worked. By watching the video attentively a few times through, the female panda was able to successfully mate with her science-match male panda. This could be the beginning of an entirely new market for panda porn. Watch out Hugh Hefner.

Getting a female pregnant is the first step, but the problems of panda preservation do not end there. Apparently the panda gestation cycle is as wild as a Midwest winter. She could gestate for three months . . . or six months. Who knows? Apparently, no one. Pandas are big and bulky, so her body size and shape doesn’t change much. She births the baby when it is practically a fetus (about the size of a hot dog and remarkably similar in appearance, only a hairy hot dog with a bleating mouth, 3-5 ounces and 7 inches long). The fetus-hotdog-panda-cubs are easy to lose or miss entirely (some pandas have given birth and walked off . . . “What was that? Oh, just a hot dog. Wow! Is that thing noisy. I think I need to head off to the old bamboo patch for a snack.”).

new born panda (naked-mole-rat-hot dog-fetus)
Even if she does notice and accepts that she has, in fact, given birth to a screaming hot dog that she wants to nurture, the cubs are frail; they have a hard time surviving. And, as we all know, motherhood is a thankless job. No matter how much you might enjoy that hot dog-baby, carrying it around by your nipple for months on end will try even the most patient mother. But leave it behind for a moment or two for quick break and something is liable to gobble it up as an afternoon snack.

There was some riveting footage in the “panda cinema” pavilion that showed a mother who gave birth and promptly was batting the baby around, as if trying to figure out what it was or how to get rid of it. The baby, a squalling naked mole rat-looking mess, would squeal piteously with each swipe of the mother’s giant paw. Panda hockey. When the uninterested mother finally turned her back, a quick keeper dashed in and saved the baby. Happy ending. 

As these things go, some mothers are better than others and take to child-rearing with aplomb. They nurture, they nurse, they produce enough milk to feed the cub. But many are unable to do any combination of the above tasks required to raise the cub, so typically the babies are raised together in a nursery setting. It has taken the scientists years to figure out the cocktail required to keep a panda baby alive and thriving. It has also taken them years to figure out processes that monitor hormone levels in females so they can predict when a pregnant female will give birth. Add to that the years it took to figure out how to breed (artificial sperm collection and insemination were du rigeur) a panda pair successfully and it quickly became apparent to me that the pandas owe their current survival to the scientists at the preserve. 

This link takes you to the preserve web site so you can watch a panda birth:
Baby Panda Pile-Up
Even so, the ultimate goal is to return pandas to their natural habitat. I was happy to learn that the preserve is starting to send pandas back into the wild. This process is just beginning (only two have been released and are being monitored) and it requires a whole different level of training and rearing for the pandas who need to be able to identify predators, escape predators, find their own food, and be able to problem solve without human intervention (“Uh, oh. I climbed too high in this tree. It felt so nice climbing up. But now I can’t get down. Help!” or “Oooh. That bamboo looks wonderful. But on the other side of the river. Hmm. I bet I can walk across . . . oops. Slippery rocks. Oh, no. Here I gooooooo.”).
Zhang Xiang, a two-year-old female, was released into the wild in November after her “rigorous training.” She is being monitored with a GPS collar and so far is doing well. She was released in the same general area as a male, Tao Tao – he went through the same training program and was released a few months previously. Tao Tao and Zhang Xiang will likely meet each other for the first time in a panda serendipity. “We’ve never met before . . . but I feel I must know you. Nice collar.

The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was one of the best things we have seen in China. The workers, volunteers, and scientists at the base are doing A+ work and the pandas not only seem well-cared for, but happy and surrounded by a lush, diverse environment. And we learned a whole heck of a lot about all things panda. Some panda facts:

-          Pandas have been around, genetically, for 2-3 million years. They are often referred to as “living fossils.”

Doing what Pandas do
-          Pandas are known for eating bamboo and consume about 30 pounds of bamboo every day. Not only that, but they need to have a diverse diet of bamboo. There are lots of different kinds of bamboo and each kind offers different nutritional value to a panda. Because so many types of bamboo are no longer part of the environment (due to human destruction), pandas often have a hard time feeding themselves in the wild.

-          Pandas have a mouth like a carnivore (dog-like shape and teeth), so they can eat meat, but have evolved to choosing meat as the very last choice, preferring vegetation. They will eat a dead animal if they find it and are hungry enough, but rarely kill. Sometimes they can fish and have the claws to be successful at that. Z reported that the only uncomfortable thing about holding the baby panda on his lap was that the back claws kept digging into his crotch.

-          There are only about 100 pandas in zoos around the world. There are 9 pandas in United States zoos. If a panda mom in a zoo anywhere in the world has a baby, at the age of four years, the baby must be returned to the base in Chengdu (property of China).

-          In six months, a panda baby grows from “naked mole rat/hot dog” (7 inches/4 ounces) to “now you actually look like a panda” (50-60 pounds).

-          Baby pandas depend on their mothers for milk and protection for about one year and then they are more independent, but it takes another year before they can survive on their own.

 Before we visited the preserve everyone told us to get there early so we could see the pandas at their most active: in the morning right after their breakfast. Following that advice, we were the first ones through the gate at 8 a.m. on the morning we visited. The preserve sprawls over several acres, so we had a work-out climbing up and down paths and hills, shaded by trees and monster bamboo plants reaching nearly twenty-feet high. But we didn’t see any pandas. We would come upon areas where pandas were supposed to be, but nothing: as deserted and barren as a 7 a.m. college bar.

Close to an hour after we walked through the gates, Z asked for the tenth time, “Where are the pandas?” I was beginning to think we had come all this way simply for a nice hike. Finally we saw one. One. A big hulk of a guy who looked to be nursing a hangover, asleep on his bamboo loft. We were thrilled. I took several photos of him, as if he were the only thing we had come to see. Little did I know that in a matter of minutes, we would be surrounded by pandas.
First Panda Sighting
Come to find out, pandas are lazy risers. The gates opened at 8, but it wasn’t until about 9:30 or so that the pandas began coming out and moving around. Suddenly they were everywhere: pandas hanging in trees, piles of baby pandas wrestling on the ground, pandas meandering through the bamboo. Everywhere we looked there were adorable white faces peering curiously or politely ignoring us.

At one railing we came across a cluster of tourists who were snapping photos and laughing with glee at a lone panda. I took a gander to see what was so interesting. Ah, a panda pooping, shooting out wads of digested bamboo in perfect view of waiting cameras. I resisted that particular Kodak moment, but I am sure it would have made a great “selfie.”

It wasn’t until about 11 a.m. that we came upon the pavilion where we could donate to the cause for a photo op with a baby. The price is steep, so only a few people – all of us foreign tourists – were able/willing to pony up the cash for the chance. The preserve only allows six “donors” a day. There are about 10 panda babies that are rotated through for the “donor photo shoots.” The babies are about 8-10 months old and weigh about 60 pounds; before that age they are too small to be handled by people who don’t know what the heck they are doing; after eight months, they are too heavy and unwieldy for a tourist lap. One panda baby can be sat upon about three laps before he/she is rotated out and then back he/she goes to the outdoor play area.

Two baby pandas shaking their money maker for the preserve every day. Each baby panda sitting on three tourist laps, looking adorable for the camera, being kissed and cuddled because they are really so damned cute. Such a far, far cry from the screaming hot dogs they were only months earlier.

Z got the last slot of the day and he had to suit up in gloves, a surgical gown, and shoe covering to go in for the photo op. The baby pandas rather like the photo sessions because in order to get them to sit still, the handler gives them honey-coated bamboo shoots.  

As with any eight-month old, the pandas would slurp the honey off the bamboo, toss the shoot on the ground and then leeeaaan over, reaching out their paws, to the handler  for a new sweet stick to suck on, absolutely oblivious to the tourist on whose lap they were sitting. The babies would go through about five bamboo shoots in the minute or so photo shoot: lick, slurp, slurp, clatter, lunge; lick, slurp, slurp, clatter, luuunge. After three tourists and about 12-15 honey sticks, they likely needed to go work off that sugar high. Or collapse in a diabetic coma.
Panda Love
I felt more than a little dirty being complacent in this panda exploitation for tourist money. I can’t justify it, so I won’t even try.

As we were waiting around outside for the photos to be developed and presented, a Chinese-American mother asked me, “Was it worth it?” She had two daughters trailing behind her, pleading eyes asking for the chance to hold a baby panda. Crap. I looked at her. What to say? I said, “It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” She rolled her eyes. I said, “I know. Shit. It is a donation. A good cause.” More eye-rolling. Yup. My sentiments exactly. But I did it. I paid the cash. My son got to be the privileged-class white American boy who held a baby panda for three minutes of his life.

HeXing's Nursery Sign

The panda’s name is HeXing. He was born the day after Zephaniah’s birthday last July. He won’t remember Zephaniah, but Zephaniah will remember him.



All Koreans Look Alike

My graduate student class, “Linguistics, Language and Writing”, is comprised of 20 women and one man. Because of the gender dynamics, I am filling my syllabus with readings that pertain to women, the status of women, and gender issues. Last week they read articles on body image, the influence of media on women’s self-esteem, and the rise in plastic surgeries and body modification processes like Botox, teeth-whitening, dieting, liposuction, breast implants, and eye surgeries.
During discussion, someone stated that South Koreans regularly had plastic surgery. Interesting, I said. “Why is that?” I asked.
Sidebar: one frustrating thing about teaching in China is that it is difficult to find accurate information about what the statistics are for Chinese social issues or problems. I can find statistics for neighboring countries, but because of government suppression of information, research in China and publication of statistics is difficult. I looked, but could not find, information on rates of plastic surgery in China. For another lesson, I could not find data on domestic violence rates in China. A student finally located information that said 25% of Chinese women will experience domestic violence, but the researcher cautioned that the statistic was likely low because women fail to report incidences of violence as “family issues are considered a private matter.” I have yet to find a reliable source that will tell me the rate of HIV/AIDS infection in China, the rate of abortion, or statistics on prostitution/child trafficking.
Regarding my inquiry about why South Koreans have lots of plastic surgery, one student offered, “Because all Koreans look alike. They have to get surgery so they look different from one another.” I guffawed.
“Do you know what many Americans say about Chinese people?” I asked. “That they all look alike!”
I looked around the room at my diverse class. Yes, they all generally have the same color of hair, skin, and eyes, but they all are individuals and look quite different. They all, however, now looked startled. “How can we all look alike? That is untrue!” someone said with surprised indignation.
Yes. Exactly. It is stereotype created by people who are not paying attention . . . just like you saying all Koreans look alike.
“No. Really. Koreans do all look alike. But Chinese people all look very different.”
O.K. Fine. Whatever.
At the dinner table, I told this story about my class to Zephaniah. He said, “Are you kidding me? How could they not believe that all Chinese look alike!”
Zephaniah, apparently not one to pay attention to details like facial features, is constantly confusing random people for someone he knows.
Z: “Look! There is Juan!”
Me: “No. That is not Juan. That is a woman with long hair and glasses. About the same age as Juan. But that is not Juan.”
Z: “No. That’s Juan. Hey! Juan!”
Me: “That’s NOT Juan, Zephaniah!”
Z: “Hey! Juan! Hi!”
Miscellaneous Chinese Woman (smiling politely at the American kid greeting her enthusiastically): “!!??”
Me: (Hurrying Z along and ferociously whispering) “That. Is. Not. Juan.”
Z: “Hey? Hey, why didn’t she say hello? Hey! Juan!”
Me: “Oh, my GOD. Will you STOP doing that? That isn’t Juan!”
Z: “Hey! Look! I see Simon . . .”
Me: “That’s NOT . . .” Arrrggggh. “Would you please pay attention? That is not Simon!”
Z: “Mom! That is Simon. Look! Hey! Simon! . . .”

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