The day of departure arrived, and the keepers and I did our best to focus on the tasks we had to accomplish rather than the goodbyes we had to say. Su Lin and Zhen Zhen entered their crates and settled in. I buckled my seatbelt on the bench seat directly in front of the pandas in the cargo section of the truck, and we departed for the land portion of the journey.
Associate Curator Curby Simerson drove the truck with Senior Veterinarian Tracy Clippinger, Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, and I as passengers. Tracy gave me a quick overview of the veterinary medical equipment she packed in case of an emergency. California Highway Patrol escorted us for the seemingly quick trip to Los Angeles International airport. Lead Keeper Lisa Bryant drove the chaser truck with all the panda luggage and passengers Shea Johnson and Ken Bohn (Zoo videographer and photographer).
A crated panda is placed on a cargo pallet at the airport.
Los Angeles Airport staff greeted us when we arrived and instructed us through the steps of transferring the precious cargo from our truck to the loading warehouse. The staff was very understanding of our unique demands to remain with the pandas for every step of the process. The warehouse was busy; forklifts, boxes, pallets, and people were all on the move. The travel crates with Su Lin and Zhen Zhen inside, their supplies and food, were secured to cargo pallets. Airport staff carefully transferred the pallets to a quiet corner of the warehouse, where Su Lin and Zhen Zhen seized the opportunity for a nap.
For the next few hours Lisa, Tracy, Shea, Ken, and I stayed with Zhen and Su Lin. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials reviewed permits, observed the pandas, and confirmed the authorization of the transport. Zhen Zhen and Su Lin were comfortable enough to snack on some biscuits and a bit of bamboo. Prior to boarding the airplane, Lisa, Tracy, and I had our first opportunity to try out the travel husbandry techniques we had practiced . We successfully cleaned both crates and drinkers without causing a startle from Su Lin or Zhen Zhen. We secured all the supplies and cleaning equipment back onto the shipment pallet and were ready for the next step.
Pandas and staff are lifted up to the cargo plane.
Airport officials allowed all of us to move onto the tarmac with Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. The Boeing 777 we were about to board appeared magnified by our miniscule presence on the tarmac! Tracy and I were given quick instructions on how to safely “ride” the cargo lift, and we stepped up beside Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. We were slowly elevated until we were staring directly into the huge cargo hull. The metal pallets with us, the bears, and supplies were mechanically moved through the hull of the plane on tracks.
Loading our precious cargo first meant that Su Lin and Zhen Zhen would be in the front section of the plane, just on the other side of the wall with four passenger seats. Geographically moving from the nose of the cargo plane back was the cockpit, a small area for the crew (total of four members), a small galley area, and four passenger seats. Aboard the plane with Tracy and I was our liason to China and interpreter, Peter. Su Lin and Zhen Zhen were pretty tired at this point. The move from the warehouse to the plane was uneventful for them and didn’t interfere with another nap.
Tracy and I were given a short lesson on the emergency equipment of the aircraft. We were shown how to operate the door between us and the bears and how to use the amenities of the galley. The Chinese crew settled us in with blankets and M&Ms for a 2:30 a.m. departure.
Tracy checks on a panda after the travel crate is secure in the plane.
Shortly after take-off, Tracy and I summoned a crew member, as we were requested to do, to check on Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. We were anxious to assess the pandas’ reaction to air travel. Both bears looked very relaxed, so we elected to turn off the lights in hopes of encouraging a much-needed block of sleep time. Tracy and I checked on the bears about every four hours. Su Lin and Zhen Zhen guided our activities by their behaviors. If they were lying down and resting or sleeping, we remained quiet and moved slowly while checking on them. If they roused, we would talk to them in a quiet voice. If they seemed to respond to our presence and voice, we would offer food.
Su Lin was receptive to her standard variety of food, including bamboo culm, biscuits, carrots, yams, and apple slices. The travel crates were the perfect size for her to position herself in the classic “panda prop sit” against the wall of the crate and precisely strip and consume the bamboo. Zhen Zhen enjoyed small amounts of bamboo culm but was much more eager to take the biscuits, fruits, and veggies as I offered them through the large food hatch on the top of the crate. The cleaning routine worked just as well in the air as on land. Honey was a great distraction from the rake that cleared away debris from the crates!
Gaylene Thomas is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo.