Hard rule to follow: Always keep a safe distance between yourself and a wild animal. Always be on your guard. Respect their needed space. Don’t move fast. And please be quiet – the human species is so loud and does not grasp how disturbing and detrimental it is for an animal (, , ). All rules apply as well for animals in captivity and as far as distance is concerned even more so when the animal in question has big claws and teeth. But one day…
I was in Central China, volunteering in a wildlife rescue center lost in the middle of a town being torn down and mostly in ruins. That center was a farce. There was pure neglect of most of the species being ‘sheltered’ there although the main species of the center was the giant panda bear, the supposed Chinese conservation icon. Why is this center in such disarray and so mismanaged, I can only speculate, and that’s a long topic… Not surprisingly this center got in the news at the beginning of 2015 – although none of us ever wanted this to happen to prove us right. A highly-lethal infectious disease had broken into the center and claimed the lives of at least 4 pandas ( & ). Another volunteer, who after this volunteering mission became a dear friend of mine, summarizes very clearly what a few of us witnessed over there a few years ago. I encourage you to read her travel blog on this account ().
I forgot how many Pandas they had there, but I can tell you one thing: Don’t get fooled by the cuteness of a giant panda bear. I’ve seen the scars of the volunteer mission leader who had an arm slashed by one and stayed 6 or 8 weeks in the hospital. It was not pretty. He got lucky…
My first week, I was assigned to the care of Lan Bao. He was certainly in my eyes in the worst shape of all. He had been rescued from some zoo or such when a young bear. He had been suffering from severe malnutrition. Even though now an adult, Lan Bao is a skinny and sickly Panda bear. When I was over there, he was not well treated by his caretaker and the head vet. He was also ignored by most (if not all) of the staff. He always looked deeply sad, and his skinny head where his eyes were bulging out gave him a look tainted with madness.
When I cleaned his caged enclosure, we would first move him into the adjacent enclosure. I usually was left alone with him shortly after the move. During the entire time I was taking care of his cage, he would feed on not-so-fresh bamboo that I had fetched for him, and I would whisper to him all the way through my cleaning chore. One time he approached the bars separating the 2 adjacent cages. He sat his face down, staring at the wet cement floor. I stopped sweeping the floor, called him gently. He turned slightly, his back showing to me. I carefully got my hand through the bars and scratched him gently while talking to him. He kind of exhaled loudly. He leaned against my hand a little more and I continued scratching his back for a few more secs until he moved away going back to his bamboo.
Later that week, I saw an enclosure moving operation which was physically hurtful to Lan Bao. He was pushed in a traveling iron box and because he was not fast enough the head veterinarian slammed the trap door repeatedly and violently on his hind legs until he got them in. The humans were barking at him, that head vet being the loudest and the meanest. No wonder why Lan Bao always looked sad and suspicious when humans were around him. I cried behind the back of the others…
I think that this brief moment where Lan Bao let me (or wanted me to) scratch his back was an act of trust towards me. Indeed, never you should touch/pet a bear (or a wild animal) <period>, and certainly not in a place that he can’t see (it is threatening to them). I still don’t know why I did it, as I am really aware of the importance of this rule and do not break it easily if ever. There was something emotionally very hard, but I console myself by thinking that even though it was foolish and dangerous of me, for a brief moment, Lan Bao called for and got some kindness…
Conservation Volunteer Blog
 Giant panda conservation? Really?! (Volunteer Blog)
Human Noise and Wildlife
Canine Distemper Outbreak
 Fifth giant panda dies of canine distemper in China (YouTube video)
by Claire O’Neill