Keeper of the PANDAS

Behind the scenes at the national zoo with Washington's most popular new couple

"Come 'ere Tian Tian and Mei Xiang! Come here, guys!"

By the sound of Laurie Perry's sweet, high-pitched voice, you'd think she was calling her pet poodles. That is, until you see two 200-pound giant pandas charge toward her, stand up on their hind legs, and curl their two-inch claws through the insubstantial-looking wire gate separating them from Ms. Perry.

But she's not afraid. It's part of her morning routine as a panda keeper at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.

Actually, it's easy not to be afraid of the cuddly-cute pandas, who arrived here from China in December. Tian Tian (t-YEN t-YEN), the male, and Mei Xiang (may sh-ONG), the female, have created quite a sensation - thanks to their soft plush ears, oversize heads, and dark patches that make their eyes look huge. The adorable duo attracted their 1 millionth visitor last month.

Even so, Perry knows she has to be careful. She's been working with pandas since 1994, the year after she graduated from college. That's when she was chosen from among hundreds of applicants to be the zoo's newest panda keeper.

Perry's workday begins at 7 a.m., about the time the sleeping giants awake in their separate indoor enclosures. She opens the doors to let them greet each other - but she's mindful not to wind up in the same cage as the pandas.

"They like to play," she says, "and even if they don't mean to hurt you, your skin is too soft for their sharp claws."

And do they play! Today, Tian Tian (his name means "more and more") leaps on top of Mei Xiang ("beautiful fragrance"), sending them both tumbling down a 15-foot fake rock hillside. Tian Tian is almost 4 years old and weighs about 250 pounds - a year older and about 80 pounds heavier than Mei Xiang.

"Most of the time, he's the dominating one," Perry says, "but sometimes she'll be on top throwing punches. It's funny to see that."

Around 8 a.m., Perry calls the pandas to an area behind their indoor cages. Perry is standing up, holding soy biscuits through a wire gate. The pandas run up to her and do the "standing panda" in order to reach their favorite food.

Perry says "Paw!" and the pair sit down. They put their palms up to the gate and get more biscuits. "Mouth!" causes them to - you guessed it.

But Perry isn't just trying to get the pandas to do tricks. You can't get in the same cage with such a large animal to do a physical checkup. The "tricks" are an important way to get the animals to cooperate, should a zookeeper need to check a paw or examine a tummy. Perry practices the commands daily.

But enough snacks. By 8:45 a.m., the pandas are hungry! They eat about 30 pounds of bamboo daily, plus a few apples, carrots, and cooked sweet potatoes.

Perry drags several 10-foot-long bamboo branches (grown in a Virginia backyard) to the front of their outdoor cages so visitors can watch the pandas eat breakfast. She weighs it first, to keep track of the bears' diet. She also scatters some biscuits for Tian Tian to find.

Mei Xiang likes to eat grass. To keep her from doing this (the lawn isn't very nutritious), Perry tosses her a biscuit-filled plastic tube. That keeps her busy for a good half hour. She lies on her back and patiently shakes out the treats, one by one, through a small hole.

Not Tian Tian. "If Tian Tian can't get to his food in a few seconds, he's like, 'I'm finding myself something easier to eat,' " Perry says.

The panda keepers (Brenda Morgan and Dianne Murnane are the others) have many ways to make the pandas' day more interesting: honey smeared on crates, treats inside narrow-mouthed water-cooler bottles, and food-stuffed garbage pails with a tight lid on top.

"We're always looking for new ideas to keep them busy," Perry says, "as they would be if they were in the wild."

The pandas, who are used to a cool mountain climate, get ice blocks with fruit inside to help them cool off in the muggy Washington summer. They can also go inside two caves -one cooled by air-conditioning, the other by cold water. A new $2 million exhibit is being planned at the zoo, based on their preferences.

They like naps, for instance. The pandas sleep for several hours in the afternoon - often 20 feet up in a tree. Mei Xiang likes to double herself over a nook in a certain tree branch, letting her head and front paws dangle.

"They're constantly doing cute things. Every day we're like, 'Awww, look at this!' " Perry says.

But Perry's day isn't just about observing cute pandas. After they're fed in the morning, she has more work to do. She hoses down the pandas' indoor enclosures, so that they're clean when the pandas return at 5 p.m. Another keeper will feed them dinner and stay until they fall asleep, around 9 p.m.

Perry doesn't mind cleaning. She did a lot of it as a zoo volunteer while she majored in biology at the University of Maryland. All that volunteering paid off when the zoo hired her.

"I could never leave now," she says. "You get really attached to the animals, and you spend so much time here that they just become part of your life. It's be best job ever."

You can study the pandas, too

The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., will pay China $1 million a year, for 10 years, for their two pandas.

That's a lot of money - especially since the zoo got its first pair (Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling) for free in 1972. They were a gift from China to President Nixon. The Chinese were trying to establish warmer ties with the United States.

Those pandas were very popular with visitors, too. But Ling-Ling passed on in 1992, and Hsing-Hsing died in 1999. No baby pandas survived. Zookeepers contacted China again. This time, China agreed only to loan a panda pair. Tian Tian and Mei Xiang were born in China at a panda center.

Only about 1,000 pandas now live in the wild, in central China. The animals need forests with lots of bamboo, but these are disappearing as humans use them for their own needs.

Zookeepers hope the pandas will have a baby. Pandas are large animals, but newborn pandas are tiny. They weigh only five ounces or so. Scientists will also study the animals here. By understanding them better, they hope to help save more pandas in the wild.

"We're all engaged with having the pandas at the National Zoo," says senior curator Lisa Stevens, "but we must remember that this is part of a long-term effort to make sure we're supporting sound conservation programs in China."

To see a live webcam of the pandas, go to (Note: You may have to be patient. Only 60 people can log onto the webcam at a time.)

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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