Panda Chronicles
Page 3 of 3

Hope for Change

A giant panda mother cradles her week-old cub.  Dr. Kati Loeffler

I finished my infectious disease study that had been pared down to a serologic survey based on extremely hard-won samples and an excruciating year setting up cell cultures and virology assays at a local university. But I returned to the breeding facility in different roles, like a specter that wouldn’t go away.

I continued my mantra about nutrition, stress, deworming, and maternal care. My colleagues reiterated it. A study on maternal care by a behaviorist at Zoo Atlanta was permitted, for which a few mothers were allowed to keep their cubs for a full year. The study was designed to see how the cubs fared, particularly when they became parents themselves.

At last, the colostrum suggestion was sniffed at, slowly absorbed, and risked. And cubs survived. Round, fluffy cubs tumbled in the nursery, tourists squealed, cameras clicked and money poured in.

The cubs did better until they were taken from their mothers, and then their colic, diarrhea and reluctance to eat began. Suddenly, one summer, the Esbilac® recipe was adopted, and then the formula was imported in shipping containers. Panda cubs fared better and grew better.A British professor interested in protein chemistry won support for a study of panda milk. He suggested that the proteins in a panda mother’s milk — including immune factors and gut protectants: galaxies of evolutionary and ontogenic precision — were certain to change as the panda cub develops. The emphasis on applying this research is to demonstrate the importance of allowing mothers to feed their cubs naturally, with full maternal care, and of keeping panda mothers healthy. As we work toward publication of this research today, we struggle to counterbalance the motivation of the giant panda breeding industry to discover a proprietary artificial milk formula that will raise big, rapidly-maturing cubs who don’t need a mother. Rather like, when one thinks about it, agribusiness chickens or calves or piglets.

Winning the battle over colostrum was monumental, and it felt like a major breakthrough. The other battle we waged was over bamboo.

In the end, it was the director of the panda breeding center himself who stood up to the husbandry and nutrition departments. Our pandas are sick, and reproductive rates are rock bottom: we’re going to feed them what they eat in the wild, he announced. His staff writhed and protested and threatened mutiny. No one wanted the responsibility if anything went wrong. The director assumed full responsibility and ordered the changes. He lost his hair and his voice, and he developed shingles and heart disease from the stress over the risk he was taking. But he was rewarded: the animals brightened and grew stronger, reproductive rates improved, and visitors now love watching pandas munch their way through mounds of bamboo.

Merial’s recombinant distemper vaccine was ordered. After all our struggle to get it accepted, I was one day sagely informed by a young member of the veterinary staff that the canine modified-live virus vaccine was dangerous to use in pandas, and that the recombinant vaccine was much better. Indeed, I said, that’s excellent to know.

On the parasite front we still struggle, but at least ivermectin is given orally now, to some animals once a month, but to cubs it is still given too late, and to pregnant mothers, not at all.

I argued science, welfare, physical fitness – once even through tears – to enhance the enclosures and to let the pandas choose whether to go outdoors or to stay in, and with the option of privacy. Too dangerous, I was told. Pandas might fall off climbing platforms, freeze to death, or bake in the heat. They can’t be trusted to make decisions for their own health and comfort. I convinced the director to visit the peerless Animals Asia Foundation’s black bear sanctuary, to see its enclosures and observe the behavioral enrichment program there. He took a posse of husbandry staff, and returned with a camera full of photographs. As a result, climbing frames, pools, and foliage sprang up in the panda enclosures. Pandas lounged above the ground, and cubs played vertically. Tourists squealed, clicked photos and spent their money.

The Future of Giant Pandas

China’s panda breeding facilities still want for major improvements, particularly in veterinary care, humane animal handling, behavior-based husbandry, maternal welfare and behavioral development. The infamous reproductive “problems” of captive giant pandas result from a combination of inbred genetics, highly unnatural social environments during critical developmental periods, and irrational expectations of giant panda reproductive capacity.

The animals at the two major breeding centers are somewhat healthier now, reproductive output has improved, and cub survival is good. The panda industry takes in millions annually. But this is a bittersweet improvement. More cubs now survive, but to live what kind of lives? They are still behind bars, exhibited before hordes of tourists, traded as political pawns, and rented for millions per year.

More cubs now survive, but to live what kind of lives? They are still behind bars, exhibited before hordes of tourists, traded as political pawns, and rented for millions per year.

Breeding animals for the purpose of releasing them into the wild serves no purpose without ongoing protection and restoration of appropriate habitats, without respect for the rights of wild animals to exist in their own spaces, and without the animals’ ability to live as freely from humans as possible. If the habitats into which pandas can be reintroduced are insufficient and vulnerable, then continued production of cubs simply means that more pandas will spend their lives in captivity.

When I last visited the panda breeding facility a year or so ago, I asked a young keeper how the new cubs were doing. She glanced at a panda mother sitting on the cement floor, gently licking a tiny creature in her great, gentle paw. “Very well,” the keeper said. Her face beamed. “It is very important for cubs to drink the first milk from the mother. Then they can be strong.”


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Dr. Kati Loeffler

Dr. Kati Loeffler works with the International Fund for Animal Welfare to improve the welfare of domestic animals and wildlife in developing regions around the world. Her efforts concentrate on animal rescue and rehabilitation, and on raising standards of veterinary capacity in underserved communities. Central to her initiative is IFAW’s leadership in the One Welfare concept, which hinges on the interdependence of human and animal well-being, individually and in communities.