Giant pandas Su Lin and Zhen Zhen moved to Wolong, China on September 24, 2010. Gaylene accompanied them on their journey and is sharing the trip with us through blog installments. Be sure to read China Trip Diary: Part 2.
I have decided that flying with a giant panda is the way to go! Fifteen hours go by very quickly when you have a two incredible pandas to visit with and take care of. Zhen Zhen and Su Lin were troupers throughout the journey. The “What ifs” and worries of what might happen were subdued by the natural behaviors these two young pandas demonstrated in conditions far from routine. The dedicated daily care given to Su Lin and Zhen Zhen, combined with the wonderful travel training efforts provided by the keepers, set this journey up to be a success!
The plane landed in Shanghai at 7:30 a.m. (Shanghai time). Chinese officials boarded the plane to check on Su Lin and Zhen Zhen and to review permits. Tracy and I parted from the pandas to make our way through Customs. We then were driven back to the cargo section of the airport to rejoin Su Lin and Zhen. They were both awake and observing their new surroundings.
Tracy and I met with Wu Honglin and Wei Ming (veterinarian and keeper from Bi Feng Xia). I was convinced that Su Lin and Zhen were in good hands for the remainder of their journey. Tracy donated the medical equipment she packed to Wu Honglin for use at Bi Feng Xia and gave him a large envelope full of medical, diet, and husbandry information on the girls. I handed over the behavior training DVD of Zhen and Su Lin to Wei Ming; researchers had worked with keepers to document the cues and behaviors trained to Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. I also presented a bag full of clickers, the hand-held audio signal used by trainers worldwide to communicate to an animal that the response given was what the trainer had hoped for.
There was a quick photo session behind a welcoming banner with Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, Tracy, me, Wu, Wei, and airline executives…and then we parted. The goodbye was a bit abrupt due to the fact that the next flight for Su Lin and Zhen Zhen was crucial to get them to their destination without a major delay, and there was little time to spare.
Despite my disorientation of real time, I calculated the flight time for Su Lin and Zhen Zhen to Chengdu, the ground travel time from Chengdu to Bi Feng Xia, and allowed for a two-hour window of error to determine when to begin asking Peter if Zhen and Su arrived without any problems. At approximately 7:30 p.m. Shanghai time, Peter informed Tracy and me that Su Lin and Zhen Zhen had safely arrived at Bi Feng Xia. It was time to celebrate and sleep!
There was a significant void when I returned to work. Daily, I passed by the empty exhibits of where Zhen Zhen and Su Lin had resided. News of their successful adjustment in China was comforting, but still their unique behaviors and habits were missed. I’m sure the sensitivities of Su Lin and the antics of Zhen Zhen are being appreciated by their new keepers! And, as years go by, perhaps we will hear stories of success, just as we have heard about Hua Mei and her eighth cub, born this year!
As keepers, trainers, researchers, supervisors, and veterinarians, we build a bond and can become attached with the animals we care for. To limit the animals we work with to our selfish bond would be an insult to the plight of their species. With a big lump in our throat, and often tears in our eyes, we bid farewell to the animals we have grown fond of for the ultimate cause of conservation!
Gaylene Thomas is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo.