When I came to China four months ago to work with giant pandas as a member of the Global Cause science team, I had no idea what to expect. I spent a few days in Chengdu, a city of ten million people, adjusting to the twelve hour time difference and taking care of administrative responsibilities at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. The buildings in Chengdu are very tall and the rivers of people, electric bicycles, cars and buses flowed and honked around me while I gawked upward at the bright signs and large video screens. I was chronically confused and overwhelmed. My second day in China I received the most efficient and comprehensive physical examination of my life. Sadly, I could only communicate with the Chinese medical professionals by using hand gestures. In a way, moving to China was like becoming deaf, dumb and illiterate. The language barrier seemed insurmountable.
The first panda I met was Xing Yuan. It was mid-March at Panda Valley Research Station, an hour’s drive northwest of Chengdu. Panda Valley is truly lovely. Flowering trees and shrubs line the small road that snakes up the valley along a clean and cold stream stocked with koi. The weather was perfect and sunlight sparkled on the small pool of water in Xing Yuan’s yard. I wore a thick gray coat and two pairs of pants to protect my skin from panda teeth and panda claws. I was very nervous.
Xing Yuan was a year and a half at the time and weighed as much as I do. He seemed huge. Awkward and clumsy, his adolescent head was too big for his body and his back legs too short. He came barreling towards me and crashed into my knees. He slid his head down my shins, somersaulting just enough to position his rear end in the air so that I could scratch it for him. He flipped over and let me scratch beneath his chin and tickle his armpits. He could have easily crushed my hand between his powerful jaws. Instead, he “gently” chewed on my hand, almost, but not quite, breaking the skin. When I started to walk away, he would grab me by my rubber boots and try to pull me down. Like a professional wrestler, he made good use of his elastic limbs and dexterous hands and feet. I can’t adequately describe the feeling. I was in China, interacting with a giant panda.
All of this got Xing Yuan very excited and he started to hiccup. I tried to calm him down by messaging his matted and dirty fur. Every few seconds his chest would contract and jerk with another little hiccup. It’s not something I’ve ever thought about before, that pandas get the hiccups, but they do. This might only be a small and silly fact, but through our unprecedented access to giant pandas I learned this on day one.
I’m excited to share with you my unique experiences and insight from my time with the pandas. Follow us here at www.gcause.org, and @GlobalCause1 on Twitter for regular updates to our blogs. Enjoy our experiences working to protect giant pandas and see what you can do to join our team and support our global cause!