Panda Chronicles
Part 2 of 3

Misguided Preventive Care and Nutrition

Basic preventive health care was another topic that I worried from every angle. Deworming. Vaccination. Nutrition. Stress.

Deworming was accepted, but only for animals older than six months and for females who were definitely not pregnant or who had recently delivered. This policy essentially overlooked the most critical segments of the population. The only dewormer deemed acceptable was ivermectin delivered by injection—thus, difficult and highly stressful to administer. I struggled to convince the veterinary staff to try oral administration, disguising the drug in a honey or apple mush treat. I watched a new mother discharge a bolus of ascarids, and my colleagues demonstrated visceral larva migrans in cubs. I was asked what to do about pandas who vomited worms. Adoption of a commonsense deworming protocol that utilized various drugs and that covered cubs and pregnant animals in particular was rejected as inappropriate: too risky.

If animals were vaccinated at all, it was with the modified-live canine distemper vaccine developed by a Chinese university. No one liked the vaccine because it seemed to make pandas sick. It killed animals like red pandas outright after triggering a full-blown course of distemper. Many giant panda cubs had lesions on their teeth that mimicked the distemper lesions seen in puppies. I contacted the pharmaceutical firm Merial, which was happy to support the panda center with its recombinant canine distemper vaccine. I argued for the use of this vaccine and explained why the recombinant type was the safest option. But my logic did not prevail. It was considered too risky to try something different.

Pandas were chronically unwell, colicky, and stunted. Demodecosis ringed their eyes. They passed painful, mucoid stools and went off their food. My colleagues and I were asked for special drugs, scientific breakthroughs, and nutritional secrets, but ears closed against our emphasis on maternal care, natural foods, behavior-based husbandry, and sound preventive health practices. The animals were fed porridge, milk, and meat cakes formulated by the center’s nutritionists and steamed in the kitchen. Micronutrients were supplemented to the extent that one year several pandas died of toxicity. Reproductive rates were nearly zero. Bamboo was restricted in favor of more “nutritious” food. Milk and meat were best for humans, the logic went, so this was best for pandas too.

My colleagues and I were asked for special drugs, scientific breakthroughs, and nutritional secrets, but ears closed against our emphasis on maternal care, natural foods, behavior-based husbandry, and sound preventive health practices.

My colleagues and I patiently chanted “Bamboo, bamboo, bamboo.” Feed the right species of bamboo and the right parts – shoots, leaves and stems – at the right times of year. Cut out the milk: adult mammals do not naturally drink milk. Mind the vitamins and minerals: more is not necessarily better. Cut out the meat cakes. Think scientifically about what pandas eat in the wild. But the attitude was that animals in the wild are deprived: the poor wild pandas have nothing else to eat out there but bamboo, and we humans should give them better food.

Even water was restricted. It was thought that if pandas were allowed to drink as much as they wanted, they would drink too much and “get drunk”. As proof, a panda let into an enclosure had been observed to make a straight line to the pool and drink until he sank to the ground with relief.

My colleagues and I argued and pleaded that pandas need a lot of water to process their rough food. They must be able to drink whenever they want to drink. If they are allowed to drink at will, they won’t drink too much at any one time. In this way they are just like us: if you sip at your tea all day, it will keep you hydrated and feeling well. No, was the response. It is too dangerous.

Cubs were given human infant formula made of cow’s milk. They were colicky, refused to eat, didn’t grow, had diarrhea, and died. Goat’s milk was tried. The cubs were then injected with antibiotics and mysterious Chinese drugs. High-tech research was considered the solution, so when a rotavirus was isolated from a cub’s diarrhea, it was thought that the cause of the diarrhea had been found and all that was needed was to administer a drug to kill rotavirus. My sermons on factors predisposing domestic animals to rotavirus infection and how to control it – essentially, with good husbandry, hygiene, and the food they need from their mothers – was considered insulting. I begged to at least try a mixture of puppy milk formula recommended by the board-certified nutritionist from the San Diego Zoo. Unfortunately, the tin of Esbilac® I offered was treated with the politeness one might reserve for a tin of poison.


And oh, the stress under which these animals suffer from so much being wrong, all day, every day. They have nowhere to climb, no way to get off the cement floor, not a bit of privacy, nothing to do. They feel sick from eating the wrong foods, from parasites, chronic boredom, and the relentless proximity of humans. They suffer the crush of human noise, smell, hands, violence, cigarette smoke, camera flash, lights. The pandas eat, sleep, and exist all day in front of tourists: after all, that is considered their job. For some pandas, the night brings merciful dark and silence. But not for the cubs, and not for pregnant females or new mothers. For them, the lights and smoke and noise and human presence continue unbroken 24 hours a day: they are observed around the clock by shifts of keepers. This vigilance is thought to demonstrate that everything is being done to keep the animals safe.

NEXT: Hope for Change»

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