All about pandas and passion
By James Ayala  ·  2023-06-12  ·   Source: NO.24 JUNE 15, 2023
A giant panda cub at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, on December 29, 2022 (XINHUA)

The year 2022 was a significant one for me. I first landed in China in 2010, during the previous Year of the Tiger, which meant that as of last year, I'd spent an entire zodiac cycle in this wondrous country that I now call home. Professionally speaking, 2022 also marked 25 years of my career of working with wildlife, which metaphorically speaking was the Silk Road that led me to China.

It was 25 years ago, in 1997, that I began working as a volunteer at the Coney Island Aquarium in New York City. I had always been interested in animals and scored high in biology at school. After graduating from college, I decided I would have a go at being a zookeeper.

Fast forward 15 years, to 2012, and I had kept my promise. After working as a zookeeper in the U.S., going back to college for a master's degree in conservation biology and becoming a manager at a primate center in Puerto Rico, followed by a year and a half at a black bear rehabilitation center in China, I had another life-changing event in connection with a different animal. This time it was my first week working at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan Province, southwest China.

Everything in Its Right Place is a song by British rock band Radiohead and pretty much sums up how I have felt during my past 10 years working at the Chengdu panda base. Continually seeking ways to improve the health and welfare of the pandas, my job became to advise and assist in both the positive reinforcement training of pandas and the environmental enrichment program. In addition, I would work as a behavioral researcher. While this was what the base needed, and it was and still is my dream job, what I really needed, was a sense of belonging.

For the first few months, I immersed myself in everything "panda." The reason I enjoy training pandas so much is that the whole process is based on trust and forming a bond with each animal.

To be an effective trainer, you need to understand the individual personality and needs of each panda. While they all appear to look the same, they actually have strikingly different personalities. Some pandas enjoy human contact, while some don't; some are very clever and quick to catch on to new things, while some are shy and learn at a slower pace; and some, cute as they may seem, can be aggressive.

As trainers, we need to acknowledge this. When you work at a pace with which the panda is comfortable, nearly anything is possible. As a recent example, during a routine veterinary checkup, it was discovered one of our pandas had a tumor. Immediately, we began training him to accept ultrasound exams so that we could monitor the tumor's progression. He was very sensitive at first but by taking the time to gain his trust, we were able to conduct multiple voluntary ultrasound examinations. Unfortunately, during one of the examinations, we noticed that the tumor had begun growing. However, because of the training program, we were able to detect the problem sufficiently early to treat him successfully. Knowing that my work helped save him is one of my career highlights.

I also work with our reproductive team to improve the natural breeding success of our giant pandas. We are increasing our understanding of the importance of personality and choice concerning natural mating, and it is part of my job to help interpret and apply this knowledge.

And through thick and thin, good times and bad, the panda base staff have been my family and anchor through the storm. 

The author is a researcher at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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