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 placing 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 at http://www.panda.org.cn/english/conservation/overview/2013-09-12/2432.html that 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: 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.
Some popular tours for volunteering with the pandas:
Volunteer Day at Dujiangyan Panda Base
All-Inclusive Private Day Tour of Panda Volunteer Experience in Chengdu
All-Inclusive Private Day Tour of Panda Holding Experience in Chengdu
Private One Day Panda Volunteer Work at Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in Dujiangyan
Panda Rescue Center Volunteer for a Day
Private Day Tour: Dujiangyan Panda Base Volunteering from Chengdu
Dujiangyan Panda Base with Optional Volunteering and Photo-taking with Panda
Private Day Trip to Dujiangyan Panda Center with Panda Holding Option
Cute! What an awesome experience. Thanks for sharing.
Must have been a great day for the two of you. The feeding treats must have been wonderful. I watched the re-run of the twins with the bossy twin winning the treat for 20 re-runs before my very annoyed self realised it was a re-run Enjoy this girls Kate
Thanks for reading Kate, it definitely was a great day for us! One we will never forget.
Pandas typically prefer the bamboo shoots first. After that, it can vary from one panda to the other whether they like stems or leaves. They are pretty picky though so even though the Chengdu panda base grows bamboo the bamboo the pandas actually eat is brought in from a different area.
Holding and feeding the pandas in Chengdu was one of the highlights of all our Asian travels.
Nice! I’ve signed up to do the same programme in October this year and your post has made me even more excited! Thanks for the information and what to expect 🙂 Can’t wait!
Hopefully you will enjoy feeding the pandas as much as we did! Can’t wait to read about your trip. Are you going anywhere else in China?
It will be a week-long vacation to Chengdu including a visit to the Panda Breeding and Research Centre and Jiuzhaigou National Park. For the panda volunteering work, we will be staying in the hostel nearby for a night – read that the conditions aren’t that great. Would love to hear about your experience.
I’ve always wanted to do this! Looks like fun. The pandas are so cute!
Oh wow that looks like such an amazing experience – how awesome for you! It is definitely going on my bucket list.
RIDICULOUSLY CUTE. I can’t deal.
Amazing article! Really interesting to know how the trainers feed them etc, Loved the video and how one Panda kept pushing the other one away, how cute are the noises they make!!!
Thanks so much Katie! We really appreciate it.
Wow, it must have been amazing to get so close to these amazing animals. You’re right, the one waiting for food does totally look like a dog begging! So cute.
Wow, this sounds like an amazing and unique experience. Thanks for sharing.
What an awesome experience this is! I’d love to do this myself one day and didn’t even know it was possible. Thanks for sharing.
This looks like such an amazing experience! I am pinning this too so perhaps my husband and I can participate in this someday when we visit China! 🙂 -Alexandra
Simply Alexandra: My Favorite Things
Now that looks like a lot of fun and amazing experience! I would love to be a panda keeper for a day!! Those pandas are so cute!! Thanks for sharing!!
that must have been an amazing experience I love animals, and those pandas were adorable
I’m a huge fan of pandas. We got a few in Atlanta that are originally from China. But I’ve never been able to feed them! This is such a cool experience. They are so cute and cuddly.
this is honestly my biggest travel dream- I am in LOVE with pandas and always have been. I’d die of happiness holding one!
Awww pandas! I have to say the picture of the panda peering through the bars makes me a bit sad though. But it seems like a good educational program helping to conserve these amazing animals and not exploiting them. Looks a great learning experience !
Ahh, seeing a panda is so much on my bucket list! Thanks for sharing your experience!
Sounds like a lovely experience. We visited China but never made it to Chengdu, but we will next time, and this experience is definitely on the list.
thank you for sharing about your wonderful experiences with the pandas at the chengdu research base! i love how you two go about traveling–i’m similar (and love ccard strategy, as well!). interesting that the panda keeper ‘internship’ at chengdu had been reduced to one day by the time you got there. i emailed them last week and the program manager kindly and promptly wrote back that the internship has been closed for now. =( i guess that leaves bifengxia!
Interesting about the internship being closed for now at Chengdu. We would love to volunteer at Bifengxia if we ever go back to China. Would love to hear about your experience at Bifengxia if you end up going.
It’s great that you were able to experience that! Hugging and hand feeding giant pandas has always been a dream of mine since I was a child. I hope to be able to do it in my lifetime. I live on a small island in the pacific so I have never even seen one in person. If I were ever able to find myself in China, where would I go to get that experience?
Thanks so much for you help!
What an amazing experience! Pandas are such beautiful animals and it must have been really special to be able to get up close to them.
Hi Sisters! Your posts on the pandas has been so helpful! As you mention it’s cash only, do you know if they accept USD or must it be Chinese Yen? Just wondering what to prepare. Also, how did you get to the base from your hotel/hostel? Finally, after feeding Oreo, would you say it’s worth it to splurge another $100 or so on the “internship” program? Do you get to take photos while you’re on the internship?
Pretty sure the payment was in Chinese Yen only. We took a taxi from our hotel to the panda base and there were taxis available to take us back.
Not sure if worth splurging on the internship or not – kinda depends on you. If had to pick only one experience would choose to hug a panda. You do get to take photos during the internship program. You get more time with the pandas during the internship but can’t touch them just feed them with a stick. With hugging a panda the whole process is really quick.