Backstory: How to feed a panda in an urban jungle
Staff from the Atlanta zoo gather bamboo from area donors to keep up with the animals' voracious (and picky) apetite.
Things seem pretty relaxed in the giant panda enclosures at Zoo Atlanta. Baby Mei Lan, age seven months, is snoozing peacefully on a log. Her mom, Lun Lun, is lazing in a hammock, while dad Yang Yang is snacking on bamboo, in between daydreaming and gently scratching his belly.Skip to next paragraph
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Behind the scenes, however, the animals' team of human helpers is bustling into action. It is 7 a.m.. and still dark, but the lights are on in the zoo's animal nutrition kitchen, and staff are already clocking in. Outside the kitchen door, Mindaugas Zebrauskas and three of his colleagues are loading tools and tarpaulins from a wooden storage shed into two white pickup trucks bearing the zoo's logo. In their uniform khaki pants and shirts, they look as if they are about to go out on safari, which in a sense they are – an urban safari.
The pandas' health and well-being depends on this team, who work full time, five days a week, just to keep them in bamboo.
"We go out in snow, rain, sun, or ice-storm," says Rytis Daujotas, the head of the animal nutrition kitchen, who keeps a list of more than 1,000 householders around Georgia willing to donate bamboo from their backyards. "The pandas need bamboo, and it's our job to find it."
It is no straightforward task: The concrete metropolis of Atlanta is decidedly not rural China, whose estimated population of around 1,600 wild pandas munch their days away in mountainous bamboo forests.
More than 2,000 species of bamboo exist worldwide, though only 200 grow in the US, and, of those, pandas eat just 20. Using their list of donors, Mr. Zebrauskas and his colleagues must gather 227 pounds of bamboo a day to keep the pandas satisfied, with a little left over for the elephants and gorillas and extra to be kept by for weekends, when the team is off duty.
In six months, as Mei Lan starts moving from her mother's milk to solids, demand will rise further. The complicating factor is that pandas have finicky appetites; catering to their ever-changing whims involves patience and guesswork.
"For weeks they will eat maybe just one kind of bamboo. They will be happy with it, then all of a sudden, one day they decide they don't like it anymore," says Mr. Daujotas. "We have to work with the keepers to decide what kind we should try instead and then work out where we can get it. I don't think anyone knows for sure why it happens – pandas are pandas."
By 8.45 a.m., the bamboo harvesting team – Zebrauskas, Robert Nehra, Andrian Grossu, and David Carroll – are on the road, along with Daujotas, heading to a private home in Norcross, 25 miles away. The owner, who is gone but is aware that they are coming, went on the donor list after calling the zoo's Bamboo Hot Line to volunteer some of the 20-foot tall phyllostachys aureos variety – commonly known as yellow groove – growing in their backyard.
With its thick stalks and lofty dimensions, a chain saw might seem the simplest method of cutting it. "But the oil and gas from the power tools would be like poison for the animals, so we have handsaws and we disinfect them every day," Daujotas says. "We have to ask the owners: 'Did you spray anything on the bamboo, use any pesticides?' – if they did, we cannot use it. We don't take it if it grows close to a main road because of contamination, or if there's a lot of bird droppings on it because that can also poison the pandas."
The gastronomy rules get even more complicated. "The soil it grows in can affect the taste, or maybe it's been in the sun more and the pandas will notice a difference," he adds. "They'll decide: 'We like it from this yard, but not that yard.' "