Not a riot, but the popular Giant Panda Experience at the Toronto Zoo, the new home of two giant pandas visiting Canada for 10 years as part of a long-term conservation partnership between China and Canada.
Da Mao, a four-year old male from Chongqing and Er Shun, a five year old female from Chengdu, became the city's biggest celebrities when the display opened in May. The pair traveled first class via a special FedEx flight from China, and after five years in Toronto, they will relocate to the Calgary Zoo, which has announced a major redesign for the future visitors.
Their Toronto "panda digs" include interpretive and interactive elements as well as several indoor areas and a combination laboratory and nursery space, should the pair start a family while visiting. For now, they live in separate quarters as pandas are solitary by nature and only "date to mate." Since this pair reportedly don't even get along, it won't be easy — female pandas are only receptive to the male 24 to 72 hours each year. Should Er Shun become pregnant while in Toronto, the parents and cub(s) would remain there until they can be moved safely — no splitting up the family.
Da Mao is the more outgoing of the pair and seems to really enjoy having company come to visit. He will lie on his back and look at the gathered crowds.
His female counterpart, Er Shun, is more reserved and zoo staff are training her to move in and out of the displays.
Feeding is another challenge as bamboo makes up over 90 percent of their diet. Up to 1,985 pounds of fresh bamboo are shipped in from a panda-specific plantation in Tennessee, near the Memphis Zoo, twice weekly. Talk about big eaters — they consume 93 to 141 pounds daily.
Ever get to a new place and feel out of sorts? Not so for this couple. Da Mao and Er Shun have expert travel companions from China to help them feel at home in Toronto. An animal nutritionist and panda house curator came along and are working with zoo staff for six months, living in a house at the zoo.
Giant pandas live in a few mountain ranges in central China. They once lived in lowland areas, but farming, forest clearing, and other development now restrict them to the mountains. The giant panda is listed as endangered in the World Conservation Union's (IUCN's) Red List of Threatened Animals. There are about 1,600 left in the wild; nearly 300 pandas live in zoos and breeding centers around the world, mostly in China.
The Giant Panda Experience has proved so popular that on busy days an estimated 20,000 visitors have crowded in to see them up close. Luckily, there were no waiting lines when we visited, a definite plus of traveling off-peak and on a week day.