The panda keeper experience program at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding caught our attention while researching the opportunity to hug a panda. While hugging a panda was a dream come true and still puts a smile on our face, the panda keeper for a day program was an experience we would very much recommend as well. Also referred to as an international internship, the one-day program (really only half-day) is a behind the scenes look at the daily duties of a panda keeper.
Panda Keeper For A Day
We eagerly arrived at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding at 8:20 a.m. Our guide, along with one other volunteer program participant, was already waiting at the gate. Following brief introductions, we boarded a golf cart to a building where the program fee was collected. We received a briefing about pandas including the types of food they are given (unlimited bamboo) and special treats they also enjoy (apples are a favorite). We quickly took turns slicing apples before proceeding to the pandas with our treats in hand.
The keeper experience allowed us to visit and feed four adult giant pandas, including a pair of twins. The three of us placed the small pieces of apple at the end of a long stick and held it in front of their noses, just out of reach. We were told to lift the stick up and down while saying a command to encourage them to stand on their back legs. It was explained how important it is for them to exercise but we felt a bit bad doing this as they would look at you pleadingly with their adorable faces. In fact, the pandas reminded us of Matilda’s dog Buddy. He too has an irresistible begging look and enjoys apples very much!
After the feeding, the pandas were released outside and our guide asked if we were interested in cleaning their cages. This involves clearing bamboo and panda poo off the floor. We gamely put on scrubs, gloves and plastic shoe covers and tackled the task at hand. It took the three of us 20 minutes to do what one panda keeper does in 5 minutes.
We were asked to separate the poo from the bamboo. The panda reserve weighs the poo daily in order to keep track of how much the pandas are eating. Although it sounds like a dirty job, panda poo does not actually smell since pandas eat so much bamboo.
Another treat the pandas enjoy are panda cakes. These special cakes (made of flour, soy bean, cornflour and oats) are intended to meet a panda’s nutritional needs. We sampled a small piece and thought it tasted a bit like whole wheat bread. The staff brought a bowl of them for us and we proceeded outdoors to find the twin pandas we met earlier.
Feeding the twins panda cakes was similar to feeding them apple slices. We took turns putting the cakes at the end of a long stick and encouraged them to stretch their legs. As this occurred outdoors, other park visitors were also able to view the feeding. The twins put on quite a show and were definitely a crowd favorite! The older, more aggressive twin would push down the younger twin to secure the treats for herself. This happened several times and they both kept making the cutest panda noises.
Here is a video we took of the twins vying for panda cakes (we have a couple more videos of the twin pandas on our YouTube channel):
After feeding the twins we stopped by to visit the red pandas. Red pandas are related to raccoons whereas giant pandas are part of the bear family. There are signs around the park warning visitors to keep away from them as they are somewhat vicious and have bitten visitors. Our guide confirmed this but stated that it only happens if they are provoked. The red pandas were our final stop as panda keepers and concluded our 3 hour experience.
How to Volunteer with Pandas in Chengdu, China
The panda keeper experience program must be arranged in advance of visiting the panda base. Although the Chengdu Panda Base website states internships are available from one day to three months, we were told that only a one day program is available. According to the program director, the program is limited to 10 persons each session and must be arranged at least 3 working days in advance.
Many people arrange the one day internship as part of a tour or through their hostel. We emailed the panda base directly using the email address we found on the website of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. In response to our inquiry, Xiang, the program manager, sent us a detailed email with the security rules for the program and asked us to be at the panda base at 8:20 a.m.
The security rules include the following: do not make sudden movements or be aggressive towards the pandas, do not open the doors to the cages, do not touch the pandas and do not throw anything to the pandas unless allowed by the keeper.
Although the panda keeper experience is referred to as an “internship”, there is a fee to participate and no college credit. The cost for the program is currently CNY 700 ($120 USD) per person in addition to the CNY 58 general admission price. Payment is cash only and there are no banks or ATMs at or near the reserve.
We found volunteering with pandas educational and interesting. Feeding the pandas was definitely a memorable highlight!
Update as of June, 2017: Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding no longer offers the opportunity to volunteer with pandas. However, you can volunteer with pandas at the nearby Dujiangyan Panda Base. Click here to book a spot in the Dujiangyan panda base volunteer program.