Ah, spring, when a giant panda’s thoughts turn to love. Officials at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo announced yesterday that they will be withdrawing their beloved pair of seven-year-old pandas from public view effective today because the female is ready to mate.
On Monday, female Shin Shin started to act restless and make suggestive noises, and now Ri Ri the male is doing the same thing. The two pandas are normally kept separated in two large enclosures that force visitors to give them some space — and also allow them some space from each other as well.
My October photograph from Ueno Zoo should give you some idea of the normal set-up. Although each panda has access to plenty of outdoors and sunlight, a clear barrier is placed in front to prevent enthusiastic visitors from pestering the animals. A guard stands nearby to make sure that no one takes annoying flash photos.
However, now that they’re in the mood, the zoo will remove the visual barriers between the two enclosures, allowing them to see each other and get reacquainted. The next move will be to take down the barriers completely and allow them to mate. The visitor area will be closed off to protect them from being disturbed.
Zoo officials are hoping to avoid a repeat of last summer’s tragedy when the pair’s six day old baby died of pneumonia that appeared to be caused by inhaling some of mother Shin Shin’s milk. It was her first baby, and the inexperienced mother apparently wasn’t sure just what to do.
It was also the Ueno Zoo’s first baby panda in 24 years.
Giant pandas are notoriously difficult to breed, and, over the years, zoo officials around the world have tried various tricks to coax them to reproduce successfully. James Johnson recently reported on how the Edinburgh Zoo is using Marvin Gaye music to convince their pair to do the dirty deed.
Japan is well-known for its culture of cute and its admiration for all things adorable. When the new pair of pandas were leased from China in 2011 — for a cool $950,000 a year — a wave of so-called panda-mania swept the nation, and it hasn’t died down yet. Shin Shin and Ri Ri are top attractions at Ueno Zoo, with many visitors making a stop at a nearby zoo shop that features all the stuffed pandas and other cuddly panda memorabilia that you could wish for.
Ueno Zoo officials will announce in two weeks when the giant pandas will go back on public display. Keep your fingers crossed. Who knows? Soon, a new baby panda might be on the way.
[giant panda at Ueno Zoo, Tokyo photo courtesy Elaine Radford]