One of my go-to YouTube videos to watch when I’m feeling low is the video of the zoo keeper trying to clean a panda enclosure, and the little panda cubs keep trying to climb into the wicker basket full of leaves. It never fails to make me smile. I have a thing about pandas; I always have. But pandas are a rarity – once on the endangered species list, they were only very recently fortunately moved onto the vulnerable list. There are only two in the whole of the Southern Hemisphere where I live; Wang Wang and Fu Ni, who live in Adelaide Zoo.
Since I’d been taking photos at Melbourne Zoo more frequently, I started to seriously consider flying over to Adelaide to see the pandas. I started looking at the Adelaide Zoo site, and found that they did a “VIP Panda Tour” that let you actually hand feed the pandas and spend the morning with them and their keepers learning more about them. I impulsively bought a pass, and used frequent flyer miles to fly over to Adelaide. I am so, so glad I did.
I stayed within walking distance of the zoo, and had to go early to meet the keepers because the tour was taking place first thing in the morning, when the pandas would be most active. Any time after that they would most likely be snoozing. It was only a small group; there was four of us plus three keepers/aides. We met Nicole, who would be taking photographs of us during the tour (dream job right there). The keepers were Angie and Nathan.
They took us into the room where they fed the pandas and kept them overnight, and showed us the huge bamboo fridge overflowing with bamboo plants. The feeding and care of the pandas is carefully regulated as is the case with all animals in a zoo, however there is the extra focus on recording and documenting everything because reports are sent almost daily to China. The care of the pandas is a highly reciprocal partnership between Adelaide and China, and every element of their care and breeding is monitored.
Apart from the predominant diet of bamboo, the pandas both have special foods that are more “treat” foods. Wang Wang loves carrots, while Fu Ni loves apples. Both pandas also eat special “panda cakes”, made up of mulched bamboo, sugar, vitamins, and eggs for protein. I didn’t know, but pandas are actually carnivores who have adapted to a diet of bamboo. These panda cakes and handfuls of fruit and vegetables would be what we would be hand feeding the pandas.
Angie kept reiterating that the pandas acted exactly like two year old children, and that each had very distinct personalities. Wang Wang was raised a single cub by his panda mother, and so he was more laid back and patient than Fu Ni. She had been a twin, and so had spent a lot of her life being reared by people and so was more adept at getting attention and getting what she wanted. Pandas are mostly solitary creatures, and although Wang Wang and Fu Ni did interact they were actually kept apart for the majority of the time, only really coming together during the very brief periods Fu Ni came into season.
We went to see Fu Ni first. Angie told us that even in China Fu Ni was praised for having a “pretty” face. She was smaller than her male counterpart, and had a little tuft of hair that stuck up between her ears like a mohawk. She immediately wandered over and sat in front of the bars, waiting impatiently for her panda cake and apples. We each took turns to kneel down in front of the bars and hand feed pieces of apple, then once we gave her the panda cake we were allowed to pat her paws while she was distracted. She watched us intently the whole time, her little Mickey Mouse-like ears moving as she chewed happily. It was so surreal, watching this beautiful animal that I had only really seen up close in photos and on videos.
She soon lost interest in us when she realised we didn’t have any treats left, and she munched on a bamboo stick absentmindedly, waiting to be let out into her enclosure.
We then went to meet Wang Wang, who had been waiting for his turn patiently. He was definitely bigger than Fu Ni with a larger head and build, but he seemed calmer and was more happy to watch us and wait while we all took turns to give him his carrots.
While we were feeding him, Angie and Nathan told us more about the pandas; about their breeding cycle and the attempts to breed cubs so far (they haven’t had success yet), about how long the pandas have in Adelaide before they have to go back (the contract is until the end of next year, but they are trying to work out to keep them here longer), and about how they vocalise (they can sound a bit like puppies!)
Once the group had all had turns feeding both pandas, we took a few more treats out to put into each enclosure. The enclosures were separated by the feeding area, and almost in a horseshoe shape. Each panda had an indoor and outdoor enclosure, as well as the behind the scenes sleeping/feeding area. The indoor enclosure was climate controlled and sound proofed, and had plenty of branches for climbing and sleeping. The outdoor enclosures were almost like little valleys, with plenty of tall trees and crevices and rock ledges. There were tire swings, hammocks, and plenty of toys on rotation to aid in enrichment. Wang Wang apparently loves nothing more than sitting in a tub full of soapy water filled with bubblegum-smelling bubble bath that he happily splashes on himself. Fu Ni loves the smell of perfume and musk, and happily loves cuddling towels drenched in essential oils. Both love sawdust, and enthusiastically roll around in it. The keepers rotate what they leave out, and also rotate which outside enclosure the pandas go in, to keep them from becoming bored. We hid the treats in different areas to encourage them to sniff around and seek them out, then we all went out to watch them while we had morning tea.
The time flew by, and by then it was starting to get extremely hot (it ended up being 37 degrees Celsius that day, or 98 degrees Fahrenheit, so not the best day for the zoo or taking photos). I took as many photos as I could before the tour ended. We each got to choose a photo that Nicole had taken of us during the morning. Then it was over. I was exhausted and elated.
I spent the rest of the day making my way around Adelaide Zoo. I fell in love with it, and with the organic way the enclosures fit into the environment and fit together. So many animals were placed in proximity to each other, and could see and hear each other which I thought was a really cool thing I hadn’t really seen anywhere else.
The thing that kept standing out to me was how quiet the zoo was, even though it was the middle of the school holidays. Go to Melbourne Zoo during the school holidays and it is a mad crush at each enclosure to get to see the animals. But there would be long stretches where I would be walking totally alone in amongst the sounds of the animals. Although, given the heat, I wouldn’t have blamed anyone who had decided to go to the beach instead and I spent an inordinate amount of time being very envious of a hippo who did a luxurious belly flop dive into the water in his enclosure near where I was eating lunch.
I sat at the lion enclosure for a long time, watching a male and female lion interacting which is something I hadn’t seen before. They were purring loudly (it was like a muscle car idling in your ear) and trying to find somewhere cool to lay in the shade.
By the time I’d made my way once around the zoo, it was getting way too hot and there had been lots of animals hidden away that I hadn’t seen, so I decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel. But I decided I would definitely be back, and I would also try to make it to Monarto Zoo, which is Adelaide’s open range zoo and home to one of the largest lion prides in Australia as well as the Lion 360 “people cage” where people get to experience lions up close.
I wasn’t 100% happy with the photographs I got on the day, but I try to look at it like it was a once in a lifetime experience I was able to have, and I can always go back to try to take photos another day when the weather is a bit better.
I highly recommend the experience to anyone who loves pandas. To learn more about Adelaide Zoo, Wang Wang and Fu Ni, and more about the special animal experiences available there, visit their website here!