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.
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.' "
The harvesters face daily hazards. In the summer, it is hot, dehydrating work, but they must wear long sleeves and long pants to protect against the tiny barbs that can stick in the skin. Fire ants and wasps are frequently found lurking among the whispering bamboo thickets. Once, there was an encounter with a wild boar.
Daujotas, who has worked at the zoo since 2000 after coming here to study animal nutrition from his native Lithuania, pays occasional trips to the zoo's reptile house when he has a few minutes to spare to get over his fear of snakes – another unwelcome yard visitor.
Mindaugas, also from Lithuania, explains: "We've all been stung by yellow jackets, and there's all kinds of bugs that bother you. But it's good to see the animals eat the fruits of our work. Whenever you tell somebody what you do ... they say, 'This is awesome.' "
Of the 200 pounds of bamboo presented to them over the course of a day, the plump black-and-white bears will actually only eat around one-third of it between the two of them. But there has to be enough for them to choose from and to keep stocks replenished every three hours – they won't eat it if it's wilted. Nothing is wasted, though: The elephants polish off what the pandas do not.
All giant pandas in zoos worldwide are on loan from the Chinese government, which mandates that the zoos make an annual contribution toward panda research in return. Zoo Atlanta has to pay $1.1 million for the honor of keeping Lun Lun and Yang Yang, and must send Mei Lan to China when she is 3 years old so she can mate and expand the gene pool.
Add in associated costs such as the bamboo-harvesting operation, keepers' wages, and the upkeep of the facilities, and the panda program costs Zoo Atlanta a total of $2 million a year. Many zoos are growing uncomfortable with the obligatory fees they pay to China. Zoo Atlanta, for one, feels they must be negotiated down. If they're not, Mei Lan may not be the only one getting on the aircraft in 2009 after her parents' "lease" from China expires.
"It makes sense that to have pandas here we have to give money back for research, but at this level it's not long-term sustainable," says zoo spokeswoman Jennifer Waller.
Three years ago, Kate Roca was waiting tables in a local restaurant. Then she landed a job as a panda keeper at Zoo Atlanta. She has a degree in zoology and previous experience in large mammal care at other zoos and has traveled to the Chengdu Research Base in the animals' native China to study them for four months.
Now she watches through a glass partition that separates Lun Lun and Mei Lan from the ogling visitors. After mating with Lun Lun last year, Yang Yang was moved to a separate enclosure: In the wild, pandas are solitary after mating, so keepers duplicate that in captivity.
Wide-eyed schoolchildren file through the "Panda Verandah" – a specially built area complete with Chinese-style pagodas and red hanging lanterns. They cuddle panda plushes bought from the zoo's special store, "Pandamonium."
"I want to touch the little baby," one breathless girl tells her teacher. But even Ms. Roca does not have this privilege; There is always a barrier of some kind between keepers and animals.
Mei Lan is still only the size of a large teddy bear, but Lun Lun weighs around 250 pounds and Yang Yang over 300 pounds. "They have nonretractable claws, big canine teeth – they could hurt us accidentally," Roca says.
"But they still play 'chase' with us through the bars when we take in the bamboo. It's like they're saying, 'Here's more food. Woo-hoo.' "