The Bear Necessities: Helping Picky Pandas

Mark Strassmann is a CBS News correspondent based in Atlanta.
Sure, they're the cutest things on the planet. Next to my kids, of course. But my kids are better eaters.

I'm talking about pandas. They're considered an endangered animal. Fewer than 1800 of them live in the wild in southwestern China. While every zoo in America would like to have a pair in its menagerie, only four of them actually do. (Zoos in Atlanta, San Diego, Washington, D.C. and Memphis) And these zoos each pay the Chinese government around a million dollars a year for the privilege of borrowing pandas to put on exhibit.

But come mealtime, the pandas make these zoos pay, too. They are among the pickiest eaters anywhere. Keeping them fed can become maddening for zookeepers.

Here's the issue. Pandas eat bamboo almost exclusively, on average, 40 pounds of bamboo a day. Bamboo comes in dozens of varieties. But the food mood of pandas can change day to day, even hour to hour. Zookeepers have to guess which variety the pandas want on the menu at any given moment. And if it's not absolutely fresh, they'll walk away. The classic parental tough-love approach of "You'll eat what's put in front of you" never hit home with pandas.

ZooAtlanta's experience is the story of The Three Pandas Bears. Lun Lun and Yang Yang are the two adult pandas, and Mei Lan is the infant cub. The zoo doesn't have the money or the land to grow all the bamboo it needs. So within a two-hour radius of Atlanta, dozens of people who own homes donate whatever bamboo is growing on their property to feed the pandas. ZooAtlanta keeps a list of donors, and sends out its bamboo crew to those properties. The crew cuts down stands of bamboo trees, loads the harvest back in the truck, and heads back to the panda exhibit. To keep their prized exhibit well-fed, and account for the "rejection factor," the bamboo crew needs to harvest four-hundred pounds of it every day.

As eaters, pandas are actually more demanding than the most fussy toddler you've ever met. Every feeding is at best, a guess by zookeepers. The same bamboo variety the pandas ate yesterday, or even this morning, they'll reject this afternoon. Zookeepers lay out a meal, stand back, and cross their fingers the pandas will like what they see and eat it. No one knows why they're so fussy except the pandas. And they're not talking.

Here's the good news. None of the zoo's bamboo is actually wasted.
Whatever the pandas reject, zookeepers give to the gorillas and the elephants. They'll eat whatever is put in front of them.

And for ZooAtlanta, the panda feeding adventure is about to get worse. As an infant, Mei Lan doesn't eat bamboo yet. But by the end of the year, she'll sit at the grown-up's table. That's one more picky guest for zookeepers to keep happy.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann was named CBS News Transportation correspondent in August 2011. He has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001, and is based in the Atlanta bureau.