Volunteering with Pandas in China
Volunteering With Pandas
Throughout our lives Ross and I have always been drawn to animals. When we couldn’t have pets at the first apartment we rented in Edmonton we began volunteering with the animals at the Edmonton Humane Society. This was a truly magical place for us to forget about our daily lives and trivial conflicts and focus on giving love and attention to the animals kept there. Later my Dad joined us and this time became a favourite Sunday ritual which will always hold a very special place in my heart for the beautiful memories this time created.
When we were beginning to plan our adventure we knew that working with animals as much as we could was going to take a top place in our priority list. Within our itinerary we included the city of Chengdu (Sichuan Province) for the sole purpose of visiting the world-renowned Chengdu Panda Reserve.
Later into our trip while doing some research I came across a website for a reserve outside of Chengdu around the small city of Ya’an that advertised opportunities to volunteer with pandas (all the research I had done up until that point had come up with exorbitantly priced tour packages) at the Bifengxia Panda Reserve. To my delight they responded to my email and we began the application process.
Ross and I then boarded a 12 hour sleeper train from Xi’an to Chengdu having not heard if we had been approved to volunteer with the giant pandas as there were a few complications with our submission. We checked into a hostel in Chengdu, immediate switched on our laptops and nervously checked our emails.
We’d been approved!
After reading the email, we apologized to our hostel, and then quickly headed back out to the bus station and hopped on for another 2 hour ride to Ya’an. After arriving in Ya’an, not a big city by any stretch of the imagination, we proceeded to get lost finding our hotel. This probably had to due to the fact that we have just travelled 14 hours straight and had not only forgotten to eat but more importantly, hadn’t mark down the directions clearly to our hotel due to the excitement surrounding our approval.
While trying to find our hotel we met an awesome local family and the incredible experience we had with them is something I’ve saved for another post, but to make a long story short, it completely changed our perspective on Chinese people for the better (check out “Impressions of China”).
The next morning we opted to take a taxi to Bifengxia to make sure we didn’t have any complications getting there. We were so gung-ho about getting to the base that we ended up getting there 40 minutes early much to the confusion of our volunteer coordinator. After meeting with the volunteer crew, we enjoyed a traditional Chinese breakfast of steamed buns, congee, spicy pickles and hard-boiled eggs with all the zookeepers and staff who live on the reserve.
Anxious and excited, we then suited up in coveralls and work gloves and headed off to meet ‘our’ pandas and their keepers, He Fu Zhi & Gaozhan.
Each day started with Ross and I feeding the pandas a delicious meal of panda cakes (a blend of beans, flour and corn which incidentally tasted like a mix of cornbread and the holy sacrament), fresh carrots and bamboo.
We then cleaned the cage of the pounds and pounds of ‘droppings’ left from the previous days’ fibre-rich diet. I can’t say that I ever foresaw myself paying money to spend a couple of days shovelling shit, but I will say that the pride and sense of responsibility I felt for cleaning and ensuring a comfortable and clean environment for these creatures to thrive in was something unlike I have ever felt before in a conventional ‘job’.
I’d like to think Ross & I impressed He Fu Zhi with our enthusiasm and thoroughness as we made sure the pens were spotless and stocked with fresh bamboo.
In between the remaining three feedings of the day and some incidental chores, we were free to explore the grounds and see the close to one hundred other Pandas at the base.
We found ourselves frequently visiting the Panda Kindergarden, which was home to six, eight month old cubs that mesmerized the crowd with their playfulness and vitality. Everyday Ross had to stop me from climbing in playing with the little fur babies because they were just so damned cute!
During the rest of our free time we found ourselves sitting inside the enclosures of ‘our’ pandas just watching them as they meticulously picked apart the fresh stalks of bamboo or found respite from the hot midday sun on the cool flooring of their pens. Feedings were a magical experience as the pandas intuitively approached the gates, sat gently and gripped the bars.
We would take a piece of food which they would gingerly take in their mouths and place in their paws and then sit as you or I would enjoying a delectable meal. The enthusiasm they took in the feedings was evident in the way they made sure that every last morsel was accounted for and then reclined in satisfaction after the meal. While I certainly wouldn’t endorse the reliance of animals upon humans for food in most circumstances, the mutual trust required by both parties in this process was a really powerful experience for us both.
I could just gaze into their beautiful black eyes for hours as they seemed to sparkle of will a sort of sweet mischief. The sound of the “purr” of a panda before meals was unlike anything else we have ever heard.
Meeting Lu Lu, Xing Xing, Guo Guo & Yingping was nothing short of ethereal. I’ve obviously never had children but the immediate connection I had (particularly with Lu Lu) was something I can only describe as visceral. These incredible creatures have simply put, defied the odds. Everything from their markings, behaviour and lack of interest in procreating (seriously, they have to show these guys ‘panda porn’ to get them in the mood) has stacked their chance for survival against them.
While some die-hard Darwinists could argue that extinction of this species would be natural due to all of these anti-survival characteristics, I now recognize that the continued existence of the Giant Panda is critical as these beautiful creatures still have so many things to teach us. Although they are exponentially cuter than the doomed Dodo Bird or the Snake-Faced Lizard (which many would argue has been the key to the continued sympathy they receive from mankind-poachers excluded); my hope is that the continued conservation work and resulting growth of the population will help to promote more intimate connections with humans and animals around the world.
How To Apply
If you’re interested in getting more information on costs and specifics of volunteering with pandas at the Bifengxia Conservation & Research Centre please go to the Pandas International website or feel free to drop us a line as we’d love to help you share in this incredible experience.
Have you volunteered with pandas or any other amazing animals around the world? Let us know!
Also, please check out “Our Favourite Photos of the Bifengxia Panda Base” for more pictures and panda videos.
Alyse & Ross
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