Absolutely amazing is a pretty good way to sum up my experience of China and living alongside the pandas. After years of dreaming I finally took the plunge, packed my wellies and travelled to China to do volunteer work with one of my favourite creatures, the pandas.
I had seen various other panda conservation centres in China that were open to foreign volunteers but one of the main reasons I decided to go to the Shaanxi Wild Animal Rescue and Breeding Research Centre (SWARC) was that it was more focused on rescue work and also that its doors were open up to other rare species, such as the Golden Monkey and Takin which I had never heard of let alone seen before.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect on my arrival there having never travelled completely on my own before or done any sort of volunteer work, the company (I-to-I) I decided to go through had given me an idea of what to expect but I decided not to invest too much thought into it, my philosophy being the less I expect the less disappointed I may be, although from the beginning I always knew in my heart that I could never be disappointed from this experience and it would be every bit as amazing as I expected it to be.
On Monday morning we were taking to our new lodgings which was actually inside the centre, next door to the pandas, (I did suspect that our quarters were once used to house pandas) given our uniform and rubber gloves and told to await further orders. China is a pretty laid back country I found, and before work even started we were taken to the local restaurant for a long welcome lunch where we were greeted by a CCTV reporter and camera wanting to interview us for a news report about the pandas, I must admit I was taken aback by all this attention and tried to hide from the camera cowering behind my large sunglasses nervously giggling (did I mention we were already in our work clothes at this point) but the reporter later caught up with me and interviewed me whilst I was cleaning panda poop! Not the best way to make my debut on national Chinese TV but I doubt many people will see it, I've still yet to see the report myself.
After lunch and time to digest we finally got introduced to the keepers we would be working with for the next few weeks. I worked with Jiena who, like the other keepers we got to know, had only been working in the centre a year. As well as getting to know the pandas I also enjoyed getting to know the keepers and they taught me a lot about Chinese culture and also about how the pandas are kept. I was shocked to hear that they did not get any time off (only under very exceptional circumstances) and their whole life revolved around taking care of the pandas, after only 3 weeks even I found the work to be a bit tedious and repetitive so I can't imagine what it was like for them doing it all day every day and not being able to see their family or friends for an extended amount of time. I was glad to be there to give her a bit of a break from her duties and ease the stress a bit because looking after two large adult pandas can be pretty hard and demanding work!
Niu Niu was the first panda I was introduced to, she was rescued from the wild after being involved in a fight and suffering severe injuries which meant her front paw had to be amputated. Jiena told me that Niu Niu is very shy with new people and will just sit in a corner but once you get to know her she is like a princess, however I never experienced a shyness with Niu Niu from day one she was very sweet and seemed to be very interested in what I was doing poking her nose through the bars and sniffing at me and even coming to greet me when I walked past her enclosure.
After our brief introduction Jiena put me straight to work telling me to fetch armfuls of bamboo to feed to Niu Niu, then teaching me how to coax her into an adjoining cage so we could clean up the remains of Niu Niu's breakfast (yes you know what I'm talking about!). I was then handed a shovel and basket and told to shovel the poop, I was of course expecting this part of being an animal keeper is shovelling the poop! As pandas live on a diet primarily of bamboo their poop was pretty much that just in a more mushy state, also it didn't smell which made the job much easier and more pleasant. After the cage was cleared of waste we would rinse and disinfect it, job done onto the next panda.
San San was the next panda I was introduced to another rescue from the wild after suffering injuries in a fight, you'll notice he has a bashed up pink nose and they suspect some head trauma as he's sometimes slow to react. Jiena described San San as a crazy boy although I must admit for the first few days I saw him as anything but crazy, he seemed so quiet just sitting in a corner happily munching on his bamboo but all that changed and San San's true colours began to show....
Food couldn't come quick enough to San San every mealtime involved a tantrum of biting at the bars and scraping his metal bowl across the floor, and even when he was in reach of food if it wasn't to his liking he would let you know! Needless to say I didn't get too close to San San, fearing that he'd try and eat me one day, although I did grow to love him and his crazy antics.
Daily Panda Duties
8am - Feeding & Cleaning
10am - Vitamins, Panda Bread, Fruit & Milk
2pm - Feeding & Cleaning
4pm - Panda Bread, Fruit & Milk
And so began my job as a panda keeper and three weeks living close to those gorgeous black and white bears.