In 2023, Lele the panda died in the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee, United States, drawing wide public attention. People found that Lele’s mate, panda Yaya’s, was also in poor condition. From the pictures that people took, she looked thin and dirty with large parts of her fur falling off, showing the skin underneath. Her miserable condition quickly raised concerns. Around the globe, campaigns were launched to monitor the conditions of pandas living outside of China. As the deadline for Yaya’s rental contract approaches, Chinese netizens around the world urged her to have a smooth and safe trip home. 

The Memphis Zoo claimed Yaya’s poor condition was due to aging and skin problems, but normally a panda kept in capacity at her age (21), if cared for properly, should not have this appearance. Here is a comparison of Yaya with another rented female panda called Baiyun. She lived at the San Diego Zoo until she was 27 years old, before returning to China. Compared to Baiyun, it is  obvious that Yaya has not received the proper care from the zoo.

Image: https://www.pandavoices.org/

Image:https://www.giantpandaglobal.com/zoo/san-diego-zoo/bai-yun-turns-26-celebrating-life-ambassador-hope/

(Picture: 20 year-old Yaya at Memphis, and 26 year-old Baiyun at San Diego)

Creating an environment suitable for pandas living outside China can be very expensive. A panda may eat up to 30 kilograms of bamboo per day, so zoos need to have a sufficient supply of fresh bamboo. In some countries where the climate is not suitable for growing bamboo, the food needs to be transported by planes. Also, as pandas like cool and humid climates, they need to stay in air-conditioned rooms in tropical countries. Due to the pandemic, many zoos around the world encountered a sharp decline in their revenue. Some zoos could no longer afford to pay the high cost for keeping pandas, therefore returning the pandas earlier than the contract. However, the Memphis Zoo still wants to earn profits from the pandas, at the cost of treating them improperly.

Normally, pandas in their senior years should have thin and fine bamboo for food to protect their teeth. However, the bamboo that the Memphis Zoo provided is too thick and not fresh enough, causing a lack of nutrition and abrasion on Lele and Yaya’s teeth. They seldom receive other nutritional support like fresh fruits and supplements. Besides, Yaya doesn’t receive proper medical care for her heavy skin disease, and she shows behavior of scratching her body all the time. Videos on the internet show that the zookeepers treat these pandas rudely, and sometimes Lele and Yaya show the behavior of begging for food. The panda’s space in the Memphis Zoo, by the current standard, is also not suitable for their living. The indoor space is blank and does not have  enough space for them to hide or rest, and both pandas show stereotyped behavior from time to time. 

With the renting contract getting to an end, Yaya’s “hometown,” the Beijing Zoo, sent out experts to care for Yaya and provide medical treatment. It is thrilling to see Yaya’s health improving as she becomes more energetic. Since April 8, 2023, the Chinese experts have already taken over Yaya’s care until she returns home. Lele and Yaya’s experience raised huge public awareness over these national treasures of China and hopefully, after this issue, the mistreatment of pandas will come to an end. No matter what, they are living creatures and they need to be cared for to survive. They are friendship ambassadors, never simply a tool to earn profits.