She was sitting on the ground and needed a hug and someone to play with, so I sat by her and we hugged and played and kissed each other. I rubbed my fingers through her cute, stiff straw-like course hair. And she rolled over and tumbled like a ball many times, and bit and scratched me.
But personally playing with a year-old panda in China at one of the 2 breeding and research centers was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a dream come true for me, because I think the giant panda is the number one cutest and most precious animal in the world. And I was so fortunate to get to play with one when I toured with the San Diego Zoo to Wolong, China (now Bifengxia Panda Base since May 23, 2008 when Wolong was destroyed by an earthquake) to see pandas. We even played patty-cakes.
Besides playing with a panda, we were allowed to see Hua Mei, Bai Yun’s first American-born panda at the San Diego Zoo, who was then at Wolong and had just given birth to twins. The twins were 3 weeks old and observing one in the incubator was like looking at a stick of butter, except it was pink. Wrapped in a blanket under a heat lamp in an incubator, the panda nursery looked like a human baby nursery in any hospital. And the nursery was attended just like a human baby intensive care unit in our hospitals. We observed the baby sleeping in an incubator through a huge glass window just like we would in a hospital baby nursery. The room was spic and span, clean and white.
But seeing American born Hua Mei in a corner of her big room-den, sitting up so big black and white, grand and tall looking, and nursing her other twin was just the cutest most rewarding experience of the entire adventure. We had to be silent and non-intrusive so as not to disturb her nursing session, so we peeked through a 6-inch crack in the door. She nursed one at a time and while doing so, the other twin was in the incubator.
Seeing 40 more adult pandas at the breeding and research center couldn’t match that. However, it was a joy to see each adult panda in their own large private open yard and house. One vivid memory from the tour of pandas at Wolong (now Bifengxia) in their own environment was a panda in her house. Through the big glass windows in the house, I could see the panda sitting with her big round black and white head and 2 ears sticking up. It was just too cute.
But I didn’t get to play with just one panda. I got to play with 7 young pandas that were in their play yard on their climbing equipment. They were so busy climbing and tumbling and just doing their thing but they made time for us all. Each panda was ready to pose with us for our photo and even posed one-on-one for our Christmas card. Whatever we wanted, they were ready to perform.
We had to move on, though, because it was time for the 7 young pandas to eat. They were given a milk-looking cereal food specially formulated for them. Each one was given a pan full of it and down they came from the play equipment. One drank the potion and another picked up the pan and dumped the contents on the ground. Two had a little dispute over the food and another sat and ate. I had to remind myself that the precious panda bears’ behavior was like animals as they were animals. They ended their meal with white faces and cereal formula all over them.
But before this animal adventure was over, there was one more surprise. We were taken to see a Golden Monkey, which is rarer than a panda. I had never seen one. The orange and white monkey was about 3 feet tall and lives only in China. When I saw him, I learned that they did not exist in the Western Hemisphere yet, but efforts were being made to get them there. What a handsome, beautiful monkey he was. Little did we know that more precious pandas were to follow.
And the final surprise was a visit to the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center in China. Besides seeing another 50 pandas in their wide open habitat, we learned about the special foods that are made for the pandas. Custom-made pellets were full of vitamins and nutrition pandas need to be healthy. And infant pandas needed special baby formulas to survive. Cow’s milk was not giving a baby panda nutrition so the special foods were formulated.
But getting to play, hug and kiss a baby panda for 15 minutes in China shall forever remain the pinnacle of my life.