Wild at heart

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2009, 12:00am

Last Saturday, Hong Kong received an especially cute shipment: four pudgy, droopy-eyed red pandas from the mainland. The creatures are on loan to Ocean Park as part of the rare animals exhibit Amazing Asian Animals, which opens next month.

With their clumsy mannerisms and plump tummies, it's hard to think of pandas as violent. But they can be, as one keeper at Ocean Park learned the hard way.

Last December, a long-time employee of Ocean Park's popular panda exhibit was bitten by a panda when she walked into his enclosure to refill the bamboo. Normally, keepers are supposed to lock the pandas in a separate room they enter. But on this particular day, the keeper relaxed her guard and went into the cage of An An, the park's second oldest panda, without locking him in a separate cage first.

When An An saw the human trespasser, he did what any wild animal would do and attacked.

An observer caught the aftermath on camera, showing the injured keeper crawling out of the exhibit, and uploaded the clip onto YouTube. Young Post has received many concerned letters asking about the treatment of the park's four pandas.

Ocean Park says it has taken swift action to ensure that no such freak accidents happen again.

'We had a keeper who made a human error ... she made a choice to enter the exhibit, and unfortunately was hurt,' explains Suzanne Gendron, executive director of Zoological Operations and Education, Ocean Park.

Following the attack Ocean Park has installed a new system to minimise human errors. Each door has two locks, so at least two people (with two different keys) must be present to open any doors.

Pandas may seem cute and cuddly, but their innocent looks mask the personality of a wild animal underneath.

'Giant pandas, emotionally, are wild animals,' Ms Gendron says. 'A panda will fend for itself as if it is out in the wild. It is wired to find food and protect itself. This is different from domesticated animals, like dogs, cats, horses, which have had centuries of domestication. They've been bred to co-habit with us in a more intimate way.'

So does captivity actually do more harm than good for these creatures?

According to Ms Gendron, conservation keeps these endangered animals alive.

Ocean Park's pandas are treated like royalty, she says. Their indoor exhibit mimics their native habitats in the mountains of Sichuan province's Wolong.

Pandas live off of bamboo which is specially grown and imported from Guangdong province. Each panda needs 15kg of bamboo daily, but the park provides more because 'they are very picky eaters', says Ms Gendron.

'Sometimes they like the leaves, sometimes the stems. Sometimes one likes the leaves, the other likes the stems, so you have to provide a lot of both. Sometimes they prefer one species of bamboo over another.'

Besides ensuring an environment close to their natural habitats, Ocean Park has also trained its pandas to receive health checkups without an anaesthetic. For instance, the bears can put their arms out for blood-pressure checks and sit for x-rays and blood tests.

This is especially important because wild animals 'don't show you when they're hurt', Ms Gendron says.

'Dogs and cats do, as if they want some sympathy, but that's a learned behaviour. But what would happen to a wild animal if they showed vulnerability? They will be attacked. So they are going to mask any signs of weakness until they are so [much in pain], it might be impossible for us to reverse.' Learn more about pandas at www.ocean park.com.hk.