The Captive Panda Breeding Boondoggle: The Invisible Side
Everything you might not want to know about how captive pandas are produced.
Posted September 5, 2019
I'm pleased to offer this guest essay by Kati Loeffler, DVM, PhD, MRCVS.1,2
"The cubs have no mother to hold them and make them feel safe and play with them. They have no mother to teach them normal behaviors, communication, and social skills. They are orphans of the panda industry."
It’s breeding season for giant pandas at a panda center in China. A giant panda lies strapped spread-eagled on a wooden pallet. Ketamine immobilizes his limbs and fractures his mind. An electrical current sears through his body from the probe jammed into his rectum. He tries to scream and struggle but can’t. A man hangs off each ear to hold him down. The electrically-ejaculated semen is collected and taken away by people in white coats.
A female panda lies similarly drugged and bound on another pallet. Semen is injected through a stainless steel cannula wedged into her vagina. She lies on the cold cement of the cell. The ketamine wears off slowly. Light, human voices, cigarette smoke, clanging metal, movement, colors weave and blur. Her limbs don’t work right, and the walls and floors move. Suddenly another panda is on her, sniffing, biting, and mounts her. She lies on the cold floor again. The light is relentless, but her eyes cannot close. Then another stab, a fresh wave of the drug, she is strapped again to the pallet.
Artificial insemination drives the reproduction of giant pandas in the breeding industry. Natural breeding in captivity is rare and dangerous, as the animals are poorly socialized and ill-equipped to manage the charged urgency of a mating event. Female pandas are forced into season each year, and are fertile just once for 24-48 hours. The window for impregnation is small, and the panda industry needs her to become pregnant. In the few hours of a female’s receptivity, she may be drugged and inseminated up to four times. In-between, she may also have to negotiate a male panda in the cell with her.
Wild pandas mate just fine, at a rate that is natural for the species. A healthy, wild female panda raises a cub every 3-5 years, and mates only between cubs. A cub remains with his mother for up to two years. At six months, he is no longer dependent on her for milk but spends another year or more learning. He learns from her how to succeed in the wild. He learns how to communicate, and the social skills necessary to live among other pandas and species in the forest. Young males must prepare for the aggressive and socially complex scuffle of the breeding season. Young females must learn to select a safe den, how to manage the male madness at breeding time, and maternal behaviors. Some of this is inherent, but much of it must be learned.
Pandas, like many bears, feel safest well off the ground and well hidden by foliage. They are intensely private animals. In captivity, a pregnant female sits on the floor of a small cell, enclosed by iron bars and cement. Chinese protocol dictates that she must be observed 24/7 “for safety”. She has no opportunity for privacy, choice of environment, relief from boredom, or escape from electric light, human noise, activity, and cigarette smoke. She huddles with her face in a corner in an effort to simulate a bit of peace.
When the infant is born, human hands immediately snatch it from her. It is weighed, prodded, measured, and fed from a bottle. She is allowed to hold and nurse her baby for only a few minutes at a time. Minders hover at the bars and poke her if she tries to turn away to shield her infant. The cub is taken away to an incubator. Mother’s warmth, gentle tongue, and heartbeat are replaced by the isolating hum of a scientifically-controlled micro-environment. Mother’s healthy, immunologically-protective milk is supplemented by artificial formula.
In December, at the age of 3-5 months, the cub is taken from his mother altogether. Removing the infant ensures that the mother will cycle again in spring. The panda industry cannot allow a fertile female to reproduce at the natural rate only every few years. Distraught mothers seeking their cubs are sometimes given a stuffed panda toy for consolation.
The young cubs are raised in a group, minded by people in paper gowns and plastic boots. They are allowed to play on a jungle gym to the shrieks of tourists. A shrill whistle trains them to shift from cell to enclosure and back again, and to come for bowls of porridge. Tourists crowd against the enclosures. Cubs take turns being carried out and sat on tourists’ laps to be fed apples and photographed. Some cubs are selected for eventual release to the wild. These are carried about, fed, and trained to the whistle by minders who wear black-and-white panda suits. The first several pandas who were released to the wild died or were retrieved into captivity. Since then, the reintroduction program and the fate of released pandas have been kept secret.
The stress from intensive handling, lack of opportunity for privacy and natural activity, exposure to human-borne pathogens, and unnatural food result in gastrointestinal disease and compromised immune health for pandas. Inevitable illness leads to antibiotics and other drugs and a lifetime of ailments. The cubs have no mother to hold them and make them feel safe and play with them. They have no mother to teach them normal behaviors, communication, and social skills. They are orphans of the panda industry.
The cubs are separated when they're about two years old. Now begins a life of isolation and boredom, in addition to the relentless human proximity. When hormone levels rise with puberty, primordial urges rage ungoverned by behavioral skills a young bear would have learned during maternally-guided adolescence. Mating fails in confused aggression, and for this reason, is rarely allowed. The media makes fun of the “low sex drive” of pandas and laud the industry’s advances in artificial insemination.
It is spring again, time for another breeding season. Youngsters who were raised by people in black and white panda suits have been released into the wild. They find themselves suddenly in the midst of complex panda activity which they have no way of understanding or surviving in. Those in captivity will be injected with ketamine and strapped to pallets to procreate.
Bekoff, Marc. Cuddly Pandas Are "Cuteness Crack" Says British Zoologist.
Connelly, Kate. Hong and Kong? Berlin's panda cubs at centre of Chinese human rights row. The Guardian, September 5, 2019.
Dell'Amore, Christine. Is Breeding Pandas in Captivity Worth It? National Geographic.
Guy, Jack. and Claudia Otto. Twin giant panda cubs born in Berlin Zoo. CNN, September 2, 2019.
Lind, Dara. Why US-born panda Bao Bao is leaving for China: panda diplomacy, explained. Vox, February 21, 2017.
Nicholls, Henry. What price captive pandas? The Guardian, December 2, 2011.
Sawhney, Priya. The Mistreatment of Female "Food Cows" Includes Sexual Abuse.
1) Dr. Loeffler is a veterinarian and research scientist with six years of first-hand experience with a giant panda breeding center in Sichuan province. She has worked in developing areas of the world for two decades to further wildlife medicine, improve local veterinary skills, and advance animal welfare for wild and domesticated species. She now works with a community veterinary practice in Ohio, serving under-resourced human and animal populations.
2) Thank you Dr. Loeffler for writing this brief first-hand exposé about a topic few people are aware of. It's essential to make the "invisible" visible along this horrific and abusive assembly line. I'm sure your much-needed essay contains information about which many people would rather not know. I used the word "boondoggle" in the title because it fits perfectly, namely, "a project that is considered a waste of both time and money, yet is often continued due to extraneous policy or political motivations." Of course, there are other reasons as well why pandas are forced to make more pandas. Lucrative captive breeding programs continue (also see) and more and more people are questioning this incredibly invasive and costly practice that produces clumps of baby pandas called "panda piles" who, like their parents, will spend the rest of their lives in captivity. They're also separated from pandas other than their mothers, including siblings and other friends, and shipped around for diplomatic and other reasons because they're considered property or "expressions of political gratitude," and are treated as unfeeling objects, rather than sentient, feeling beings. As a case in point, just as I was posting this essay I learned of an essay by Kate Connolly called "Hong and Kong? Berlin's panda cubs at the centre of Chinese human rights row," with the subtitle, "Competition to name Meng Meng’s twins intensifies pressure on the German government." In 2013 alone, 20 artificially bred panda cubs were born at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan province and 14 were displayed in this "epic photo-op." Additional images can be seen here. Baby pandas certainly are "cuteness crack," as British zoologist Lucy Cooke calls them. Someone recently told me they love baby pandas and were thrilled to see them "in person." My only response, based on how they're made, is I'm glad they don't love me.