A Child’s Experience in Wolong

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October is Kids Free Days at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. During October, staff at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research are sharing their interactions and connections with nature at a young age and how these connections put them on their paths to becoming conservation biologists. Read a previous post, Observing Nature as a Child.

In 2000, I was given the opportunity to study pandas at the Wolong breeding center. This trip to the reserve, nestled in the Qinling mountains of Sichuan Province, China, would be for several months and would be during the winter. The thought of studying the behavior of giant pandas in these snow-covered mountains had so much appeal. Of course I wanted to go! There was one catch though: I had two young children. My son would be three during our stay, and our daughter would be just eight months old. With this in mind, I thought I had to turn down the offer. How would my children cope with the (then) rugged conditions at Wolong? And how would they deal with the transition from warm and sunny San Diego to the snow and chill and rain of the Wolong winter?

Soon after I posed this question to myself, I read an article in an outdoor magazine about a biologist working with orangutans at a rescue center in Asia. The author spoke about the satisfaction of working in that remote forested setting with the animals she loved and her family (including her very young son) in tow. Included in the article was a picture of her son looking eye to eye with a young orangutan. At that point I changed my mind again. I looked into all the things I could do to prepare for the safety and health of my children, and my husband and I decided to take them with us on our adventure.

My work at Wolong was satisfying and interesting. Studying the behavior of a large number of pandas, including many young cubs, was a real pleasure. But the most incredible memories of our trip came while watching my young son explore in the snow-flecked stands of bamboo that lined the perimeter of the Center, or watching my daughter’s big blue eyes widen as we hiked as a family around the steep slopes that were found all over Wolong. Keepers at Wolong were like our extended family and treated our children as their own. My son would spend much time with Wolong’s staff, and at times he had opportunities to share the “playground” with giant pandas that were a bit younger than he was but the same size. I will never forget watching my three-year-old son, all bundled up against the cold, sitting eye to eye with a five-month-old giant panda cub.

Of course we have many, many pictures from our family time in Wolong. And my son will still talk about his memories of our time in China; the frozen waterfall just across the river, collecting walnut shells from the trees that lined the valley, and the time he spent “playing” with giant pandas. Although there were challenges associated with our travels, I feel like this early connection to Wolong’s nature—the the snow, rain, mountains, bamboo and pandas—is one that has enriched my childrens’ lives greatly.

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her last post,
Make Us Proud, Su and Zhen!

Update October 15: Info on the San Diego Zoo’s 2011 WorldWild Tour to China and its pandas is now available!