Panda pilgrimage takes women to China
For four middle-aged American women, a trip to China was a chance to pull out all of their panda finery: the panda earrings, the necklaces and the many, many panda plush toys.
The Washington Post
BIFENGXIA PANDA BASE, China — For four middle-aged American women, a trip to China was a chance to pull out all of their panda finery: the panda earrings, the necklaces and the many, many panda plush toys.
But what they experienced when they got to the country's largest panda reserve topped anything they'd ever done in years of devotion to their beloved bear, Tai Shan.
In brown janitorial coveralls, they gathered new ursine artifacts straight from the source: clumps of fibrous, multicolored panda poop.
The sight of Westerners scrubbing down the panda pens was enough to cause flocks of Chinese tourists to swivel their cameras to catch the action.
For the Americans, the up-close panda time was a privilege for which they had spent lavishly and planned meticulously. The four of them — three from Washington, one from New York — had dreamed up this trip into the bamboo forests of Sichuan province months ago, almost from the moment the National Zoo in Washington announced that Tai Shan was leaving.
His departure in February left the women heartbroken and wondering what his life would be like. What worried them most was this: In a faraway land with hundreds of other pandas and 1.3 billion strangers, would anyone love Tai Shan as they had throughout his life?
That's what they came here recently to find out. And to get as close as possible, they even persuaded his new handlers to let them feed and clean up after him.
It may seem like a bizarre idea, the women admitted, maybe even a little excessive.
"We don't want to come off like crazy or rich, entitled foreigners," explained Karen Wille, 56, a business consultant from suburban Arlington, Va. "He's their panda now. ... But we just want to see how he's doing."
Strangers at the zoo
The four women were complete strangers just five years ago, their friendship forged over long days at the National Zoo. They went once a week whenever possible to watch Tai Shan, to talk to one another and to seize any chance to speak with his keepers.
Among the four women, Wille is the quickest to cry. Elise Ney, 50, an audiologist from suburban Bethesda, Md., is the strong one, always upbeat. The third woman, who lives in New York but said she did not want her name published, is the most private and least inclined to explain to a reporter how she ended up crossing oceans and continents just for a bear.
It was the youngest — Christie Harper, 42, of Derwood, Md. — who served as the master planner, mapping out each step of the trip.
During his 4 ½ years in Washington, Tai Shan and his mom adorned the cover of National Geographic. His fans included first lady Laura Bush and the queen of Bhutan. His cuteness inspired thousands of gifts, letters, even wedding invitations sent to the zoo. And when Washington's most beloved animal finally left, it was as though the entire city went into mourning.
Harper also read articles from China in which his new keepers vowed to treat him like any other panda. No more sweet potatoes or pears (his favorites). No special treatment.
As Ney put it: "Watching him go was a little like sending your kid off to school. You just don't know. You worry."
The women, however, were careful not to say any of this as they entered the panda reserve with a tour group from the United States. They wanted to be perceived by Tai Shan's new keepers as friendly, easygoing and sane.
But when they finally reached Tai Shan's new home — a spacious concrete pen leading out to a large, bamboo-lined courtyard — the squeals of joy and tears flowed freely.
The women volunteered through a new program at the Bifengxia panda-research center. The program was designed to give foreign donors a hands-on look at the center, but has since been opened up to all tourists. Although their tour included just two days at the reserve, the women stayed on for almost an entire week.
The trip was expensive overall — roughly $5,000 per person — but the fee to work with the pandas was relatively small, about $15 a day plus $22 for the uniform. Most volunteers are assigned their jobs, but the women's enthusiasm persuaded officials to let them toil mostly on Tai Shan's pen.
They were quickly put to work, their bodies aching at the end of each day. But what made everything worth it was the feeding, when they got to touch Tai Shan for the first time through bars — something they always wanted but were never allowed to do in Washington.
Upon learning that the women had paid to do such work, one Chinese man taking photos of them was simply dumbfounded. "I don't understand it," said Ma Yueguang, visiting from the nearby city of Chengdu. "That kind of hard labor is what the poor migrant workers do in China. They spent money to do this?"
Beyond fees and donations, the women also brought loads of gifts for Tai Shan's keepers: T-shirts, chocolates, even trinkets for their children. And after a long morning's work on a recent Friday, they invited one keeper to lunch, treading lightly with their questions: Does he like working at the panda center? What does he think of Tai? How has their baby bear been these past months?
A new exercise routine
In an interview, the reserve center's vice director of panda care, Luo Bo, said the panda arrived underweight at 196 pounds and with a flabby belly. His keepers tackled both problems by preying on his love of food, hiding snacks to force him to exercise while simultaneously bulking him up. In just seven months he had gained 40 pounds. (A spokeswoman for the National Zoo disputed the underweight characterization and attributed his weight gain in China to seasonal fluctuations.)
Yes. But is he happy?
At this, Luo's face softened and he put aside the spreadsheets and numbers.
Ever since Tai Shan's arrival, Luo has seen the steady trickle of American fans to his panda reserve. He's read how these Tai Shan lovers are often laughed at and derided, both in the United States and China. But Luo said he welcomed their passion and even admired it.
Throughout much of China, the concept of animal rights is just emerging, he explained, and abuse of animals is still prevalent. "When you are poor you only worry about what you will eat, where you will sleep. Things like animal rights are considered a luxury," he said.
"But that's changing in China," Luo said. "If the Chinese see just how much these foreigners are able to love a single panda, perhaps they will start loving animals, too."
Hearing such talk from his keepers has done much to soothe the four women's worries.
One of Tai Shan's keepers, Liu Juan, said, "I want to tell the women that we also love pandas. That's why we all work here. They don't need to worry about Tai Shan."
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