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Pandamonium: Behind The Scenes At The Toronto Zoo

One million besotted visitors can’t be wrong. An inside look at the Toronto Zoo’s bear boom.

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Pandamonium: Behind The Scenes At The Toronto Zoo

On a chilly Monday last March-while the prime minister delivered a triumphant speech at Pearson Airport and the furry new arrivals were paraded in crates around the tarmac, greeted by cameras and serenaded by children-Karyn Tunwell waited at the Toronto Zoo, glued to her phone for news about the most famous bears to ever touch down on Canadian soil.  

 Tunwell is a veteran keeper, a lanky 50-year-old who strides across the zoo’s 290-hectare property to wrangle primates or feed butterflies, her belt cinched tightly around her khaki uniform. When she heard they were receiving a pair of pandas, she had been quick to volunteer. It was an exciting chance to work with a single-and singular-species and end her three-decade tenure at the zoo with a flourish. Tunwell and two other keepers would be entrusted with the creatures for their first five years in Canada. Then the pandas would be sent to Calgary-where they would spend another five years before they are slated to return to China-and Tunwell would retire to a quiet life of gardening and volunteering at a parrot shelter. “It’s a nice way to finish my career,” she says. “They leave, I leave.” 

That morning, Tunwell’s colleagues stayed in contact, texting her the play-by-play as the pandas began travelling down the highway with a police escort, like foreign dignitaries. Tunwell had studied photos of the pair. She had trained at the Memphis Zoo, one of only five North American zoos with giant pandas in their care, learning as much as possible about the moody, notoriously picky eaters. She was prepared. But now that they were here, she was consumed with worry. How would they adjust to the harsh Canadian climate? Would they emerge from their travel containers? What if they rejected the bamboo selected for them? The idea of the pandas stubbornly starving themselves, sparking an international incident, was too awful to consider. For someone who had been looking after no-fuss zebras, yaks and bison just a year earlier, becoming caretaker to the animal kingdom’s version of the royal baby was nerve-racking.

When workers unloaded the crates from the FedEx trucks and opened the doors, Da Mao, the four-year-old male-100 kilograms of sleek fur and round haunches-immediately strolled out of his Plexiglas box, his soft gaze taking in his new home. After his trans-Pacific flight, he looked as fresh and alert as if he had just woken up from a quick nap. 

Er Shun, the six-year-old female, was more hesitant. She lingered in her travel crate, refusing to come out. Finally she emerged and warily made her way into the enclosure. When Er Shun looked around, then began crunching on bamboo, Tunwell let out a sigh of relief.

Next: Animal Icons

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Plush and docile, with large black eye markings, the panda is the ultimate animal icon-symbol of wildlife organizations; hero of animated movies; logo on countless restaurant menus, greeting cards and kids’ pyjamas. No other creature comes close to having such star power. Da Mao and Er Shun’s arrival at the zoo marked the end to a year spent frantically building new enclosures, training staff, finding a reliable bamboo supplier and clambering over the bureaucratic hurdles that appear when you try to ship two highly endangered animals halfway around the world.

In those early weeks, Tunwell was as anxious as a new mother. She would watch Da Mao and Er Shun on the video monitors in her office, toggling between the 18 cameras installed to track the animals’ every move. Pandas are solitary animals in the wild, only coming together during the female’s very brief mating period. For that reason, the two animals are kept separate, in adjacent matching sets of indoor and outdoor habitats filled with climbing structures and fake rocks set against a painted backdrop of Asian-looking mountains, like the ink paintings of the Yangtze River you see in Chinese restaurants. Stationed next door, Tunwell would pan to Er Shun chewing morosely on bamboo in one corner, then quickly check in on Da Mao snoozing near his enclosure’s pool, his nose so close to the water’s edge Tunwell was worried he could drown. 

Feeding pandas is a bear of a job. Somewhere along the evolutionary line these natural carnivores decided to consume only incredibly fibrous bamboo, a food nearly impossible for their systems to digest. Because of this, the animals spend nearly every waking moment eating in order to get enough nutrients. Complicating matters is that the kind of bamboo pandas will find appetizing is impossible to predict. “They’ll smell five pieces before they choose one,” says Tunwell. “Then, an hour later, they’ll do the same thing and choose one of the pieces they discarded. I have no idea what they’re looking for.” 

Every day, Tunwell and the other keepers haul about 22 kilograms of bamboo into each enclosure. When Tunwell arrives at 6:30 the following morning, the place looks “like a bomb has gone off,” she says. Keepers need to sort through the wreckage, separate the leaves from the waste, and weigh all the poo-about eight kilograms a day-to make sure the animals are eating properly. 

In the early weeks, most of the zoo’s focus was on the slow work of building trust with the animals, feeding them, cleaning their environment, letting them feel safe. “They had to build up that rapport with us,” says Tunwell. “They have to know that you’re okay.”

Since March, Tunwell has grown to understand the pair-as much as it’s possible to understand any panda. “Da Mao’s a rock star,” says Tunwell. The chubby bear slumps upright, contented, oblivious to the excited kids chattering against his enclosure railing. He picks through bamboo piles, using the thumb-like bone in his wrist in a compellingly human way, bringing stalks to his large incisors and tearing through the leaves. “He’s very laid-back, and a bit of a suck-up,” says Tunwell.  

Er Shun has remained slightly aloof. She can be finicky, demanding more patience. At times she seems a little frazzled, going through phases that worry her keepers. Early in the summer, Tunwell noticed that Er Shun was acting strangely. She would wake up in the morning, have a bite or two of bamboo, then instantly go back to sleep for hours. A summer intern-whose sole job was to watch panda behaviour via camera-went through the nighttime tape, searching through hours of night-vision footage before he found the potential cause of Er Shun’s grogginess and lack of appetite: she was waking up at two in the morning and gorging herself on bamboo. A foreign female brought to a strange land, Er Shun’s disorientation had taken a familiar form: she had become a midnight snacker. 

Despite all of Tunwell’s time with them, Da Mao and Er Shun are tricky to read. Other zoo animals will let you know how they’re doing. They’ll run around, swing through their enclosures or, in bad times, quietly sulk in the corner, rocking back and forth. Pandas, with their big benevolent masks, seem impenetrable. They eat, they sleep, they briefly move around with that lumbering gait, then they sleep and eat some more. 

We love pandas obsessively, but know remarkably little about what makes them tick. Elephants have complex emotional lives, mourning dead relatives for years. Chimpanzees live within an intricate social structure. And pandas? They avoid food that’s actually good for them, shun each other and disdain sex. One notable recent study compared them to the South American spectacled bear and found, somewhat unflatteringly, that pandas weren’t able to pick up on visual cues like their cousins could. It suggested the possibility that the answer to the question “What is the panda thinking?” might be, “Not much.”

Yet the way their black eye patches peak toward the centre of their faces can make them appear bemused or slightly hurt. And thanks to their round, teddy bear-like ears and steady expression, they can come across as nurturing, soulful or sorrowfully wise. More than anything, pandas are a blank canvas-creatures easy to love without ever understanding.

Next: Getting a peek at the pandas

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On a warm Monday in August, a few months after the pandas landed, families and camp groups crowded around to get a look at the pair. Parents held up iPhones and toddlers, oohing and aahing at the bears’ every move. At Er Shun’s enclosure, a young zoo employee spoke about the animals. “It was Er Shun’s birthday this weekend, and she enjoyed a cake made from ice and bamboo,” he drawled. The kids ignored him. All eyes were locked on the bear. 

Because of their popularity and rarity-there are fewer than 2,000 in the wild, while roughly 300 live in captivity-China carefully controls where the bears are sent, using them as rewards for countries with which it maintains strong diplomatic ties. This pair only came after Stephen Harper signed trade deals on everything from uranium to softwood lumber. The gift comes with a price: China loans the pandas for 10 years at an annual cost of $1 million. When you factor in the extra staff, biweekly bamboo shipments and new habitats, the bill adds up. In total, the Toronto Zoo plans to drop $19.5 million on the pandas. Er Shun and Da Mao may be cute, but they’re fearsomely expensive. 

It seems like a lot of toil and money for a pair of plump prima donnas who spend 98 per cent of their time either eating or sleeping. But of all the roles pandas have adopted-political ambassador, ecological mascot, epitome of adorableness-one holds the most sway: blockbuster attraction. The zoo is hoping that the bears will pay their own way, bringing in thousands of visitors who wouldn’t make the trip to see a mere rhinoceros or giraffe. 

The good news is that the crowds have been constant. The zoo reached the million-visitor mark in early August, ahead of schedule (and over 60,000 panda plushies have been sold). The animals are keeping up their end of the bargain. 

Tunwell enters Er Shun’s enclosure, inserting herself into the faux-Chinese scenery for the animal’s daily training session. In recent decades, zoo animals have begun to receive the same kind of intensive training as performing dolphins or orcas. It allows keepers to monitor animals’ health and control them without force or anaesthetic. How do you check an elephant’s foot for illness? How do you inject an orangutan with birth-control medication? You train them to perform certain “behaviours,” to amicably offer their paws or shoulders.

Tunwell has a whistle around her neck, and a pouch hangs from her waist stuffed with apple slices and leaf-eater biscuits, the high-fibre snack zoos feed their herbivores. She bends over to look into Er Shun’s eyes. The panda sidles to the panel of metal fencing that separates the two of them and puts her paws up against the fence, crouching on her thick hind legs. 

Tunwell puts her fist to the fence, and Er Shun moves over to touch it with her nose, a variation of a behaviour the panda learned years ago, in an entirely different country from an entirely different keeper. The purpose of this “target training” is to eventually transition from simple moves into more complicated actions. The nose-to-fist can lead to a head turn. The head turn can lead to an ear inspection. One behaviour links to the next until eventually keepers are able to fluidly steer the animal through the enclosure, inspecting them, keeping them healthy.

The ultimate aim of all this, of course, is a panda cub. Sometime in the spring, Er Shun will go into heat for just one to three days-a brief, once-a-year window of opportunity. The keepers will slowly introduce the bears and hope that there’s chemistry. Because Da Mao is still somewhat immature, keepers are also preparing to impregnate Er Shun using artificial insemination. Captive breeding has been problematic in the past, but zoos have had some success in recent years. Twins were born in Atlanta last July. In August, a cub was born in Washington’s National Zoo. The Toronto crew is hopeful.  

“I already told everyone, ‘If there’s a panda cub, I’m taking the year off,'” jokes Katie Gray, the head of public relations at the zoo. An adorable baby would bring crowds on its own, with no need to drum up media coverage. More than that, with each new animal, the species inches closer to stability. The cub would most likely be sent back to China to make its captive breeding program more genetically diverse, with the goal of eventually releasing more pandas back into the wild. The first step, though, is getting Er Shun comfortable with the keepers and teaching her the behaviours that would help her through a potential pregnancy.

In the panda habitat, Tunwell touches the ground and Er Shun obediently comes to her. The keeper rewards her with a leaf-eater biscuit after gently blowing her whistle, a quick toot the animal grows to associate with a reward. 

Watching the two move around, in a clumsy, wordless dance, it’s difficult to know who is leading whom. It’s a funny relationship. The keeper is in charge, at least in theory, but often it seems as if Tunwell is at the mercy of these enormous, inscrutable creatures with such urgent, specific needs. 

For Tunwell, looking after the pandas has been all-consuming. She’s already used up her benefits on massages to soothe muscles aching from hauling bundles of bamboo. In the office, even in the middle of a conversation, she finds herself craning her neck to watch the monitors, hurriedly ending her break to bring in more bamboo if she sees a panda stirring. On a four-day vacation in August, she couldn’t stop thinking of them, anxiously emailing her fellow keepers to get updates. The two animals have taken over her life. 

For the pandas, too, it must be odd. Few endangered animals are shipped across the world. Few have humans try so insistently to bond with them. Of course, the pandas don’t know the larger picture. They don’t know they’re incredibly expensive and politically powerful animals. They don’t know they’re YouTube celebrities. Er Shun has no idea that, as one of only a few hundred fertile females, she is expected to breed to avoid going the way of the dodo. 

With nearly half of the world’s species slated for extinction in the next hundred years, it’s not hard to imagine better ways to spend tens of millions of conservation dollars. Yet the idea of losing a species as bewitching as the giant panda is unthinkable. It would be a devastating sign of our failed stewardship. The bears have always been a symbol of our ecological conscience, but with the rise of “pandamonium,” they’ve become something stranger-the living embodiment of our irrational, heartfelt, absurdly sentimental relationship with the animal world. How we treat pandas might be the most interesting thing about them.

Next: Inside with the pandas

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In the panda habitat, Tunwell continues her training session, ignoring the smartphones flashing as visitors press against the glass to see the action. She touches a wooden baton-what trainers call a “target stick”-to Er Shun’s belly. The animal accepts the gentle prodding, and Tunwell gives her a whistle blast and a biscuit. Next she holds the baton centimetres away, hovering over the panda’s furry stomach. The goal is to teach Er Shun to offer her belly for inspection so that keepers can look at her, palpate her and, one day, perform an ultrasound. 

Er Shun considers the proffered baton but doesn’t budge. Tunwell holds her head to one side, entreatingly. Come on. Come on. The panda hesitates, then turns away. 

Tunwell regroups and repeats the sequence: baton to belly, whistle and treat. She pops the biscuit into Er Shun’s mouth and watches the bear throw back her head and chew. Tunwell offers the baton again. You can almost see the wheels turning as the panda takes the next step in logic, from passively accepting the baton to actively moving toward it. Er Shun inches her belly toward the baton, finally resting against it. 

Tunwell smiles. “Good,” she says. “Good!” It is a small victory, but a necessary one-another tiny step on the long, strange journey we are taking with this species.

The zookeeper whistles, reaches into her food pouch for a reward and gets ready to do it again.


Listen to the podcast with author Nicholas Hune-Brown for more insight into the fascinating world of pandas.