Updated: Feb 14, 2022
This week, Panda Voices and In Defense of Animals were thrilled to receive the support of famous superstar Billie Eilish who joined in our efforts to help pandas YaYa and LeLe at Memphis Zoo return to their homeland in China.
Billie Eilish wants to save abused Memphis Zoo pandas
Billie Eilish’s support caused a huge stir, triggering wide press coverage and intense discussions on social media. Feeling the pressure, Memphis Zoo finally released a statement to address the raised concerns.
Panda Voices would like to officially state that all our arguments presented in the media are based on regular monitoring via the panda cam, conversations with panda experts, researchers, Chinese authorities, and the experience of our members and supporters who have visited and followed many pandas around the world, monitoring the situation of captive pandas worldwide. Local volunteers in Memphis who were touched by the situation of both pandas also contributed to our cause. In our social media, we often receive testimonials from concerned Memphis residents thanking us for raising awareness and concerns about YaYa and LeLe’s welfare as they were appalled each time they saw them at the zoo.
Part of local residents' comments on WREG News Channel 3, reflecting the reality at Memphis Zoo
Memphis Zoo’s statement failed to address several concerning issues. Nothing was mentioned about the obvious signs of stereotypical and self-harming behavior – a manifestation of mental suffering – that both pandas often show, which Panda Voices have reported countless times. Zoochosis is a sign that the pandas are not coping with their unnatural environment, yet Memphis Zoo has given no evidence that it is addressing their suffering.
Video recording on 22 Aug 2021, showing the zoo's neglect for YaYa's natural demands and dispassion to its abnormal behaviors
There is no evidence of enrichment for the pandas in their enclosures, as seen in other zoos. Enrichment is meant to serve as a substitute for the mental stimulation animals would receive in the wild. It may be in the form of frequent interaction with the keepers, the keepers hiding food for the pandas to find, toys for the pandas to play with, offering different treats to the pandas, or exchanging yards every few weeks to help keep them from getting bored.
The contrast comparison of the captive environment between Taipei Zoo and Memphis Zoo confirms the lack of animal welfare and enrichment in Memphis Zoo's panda house
The quality of the bamboo offered to YaYa and LeLe is often yellow and dry. It is not surprising that the pandas often refuse this bamboo as seen on the panda cam on several occasions. The fact that Memphis Zoo needs to ask the citizens for bamboo donations is a cause for concern since pandas are very picky eaters. Not only do they just eat specific types of bamboo, we understand from some panda keepers that some pandas may refuse the same bamboo grown in different areas.
On 4 June 2021, a video recording showed the panda's significant mental stress. LeLe was unsettled by the low-quality bamboo he received and the long wait without the keeper's care
Memphis Zoo has finally admitted YaYa has a chronic skin condition, contradicting claims it made previously, even on the same day, which stated that YaYa and LeLe are “perfectly healthy”. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) also corroborated the zoo’s previous statement that the pandas are healthy and YaYa does not have any type of skin condition. As a regulator of zoos, AZA has a responsibility to the public and to the animals held at the facilities it accredits. So far, no evidence has been provided that AZA sent a qualified panda veterinarian onsite to perform a thorough and independent medical check on both pandas, leading advocates to fear that AZA may be relying solely on Memphis Zoo’s records. As of February 2022, YaYa’s lower back is almost bald.
Screenshot from Memphis Zoo's live webcam on 11 Jan 2022, showing the severe condition of YaYa's parasites and skin condition
YaYa’s ‘owner’, Beijing Zoo, released an official document on 6 August 2021 in response to the concerns raised by Chinese fans. Given YaYa’s condition, the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens (CAZG) suggested Memphis Zoo provide YaYa bamboo shoots all year round and increase her daily treats and the intake of complement amino acids. However, we have yet to see the pandas getting bamboo shoots or other nutritious treats, like fruits and panda cakes.
Memphis Zoo has been closed to a dialogue and blocked panda fans on social media. However, after the impact of Billie Elish’s support, it finally unblocked our accounts and started responding to panda fans on its social media. Panda Voices and In Defense of Animals are still very much open to a dialogue with the zoo and we would like to invite Memphis Zoo to an online meeting. We hope to be able to work together with the singular objective of helping the pandas. Transparency and honest dialogue, instead of a defensive posture, would be the best approach for everyone, especially for the animals.
Zoos in other countries keep an open dialogue with the fans. An example is Beijing Zoo in China - they meet with panda fans to hear their suggestions and work together with the common aim of improving the pandas’ quality of life. Zoo Negara in Malaysia is open to treats and toys donation to the pandas for their enrichment. Panda fans who are keen to donate consult with the keepers to ensure the toys donated are safe and suitable for the pandas. Panda fans have paid money to buy toys from the zoo’s Amazon wishlist, but there is no evidence that the donations have been provided to, or had any impact on YaYa and LeLe’s wellbeing.
We stress that our objective is to ensure the animals are in good health and in good hands. We need to be certain that YaYa and LeLe live their best lives and get the required attention from those responsible to look after them. Therefore, we also present the following requirements for the zoo:
Following the CAZG’s official statement, both pandas should be given bamboo shoots all year round with plenty of fresh bamboo of sufficient varieties of the pandas’ liking, available at all times so they have enough to eat, digest and rest and nutritional supplements/snacks such as carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, apples, pears, and panda cakes daily, as suggested by Chinese authorities. This is especially important when the keepers go off earlier than usual as the pandas seem to be very unsettled early the next morning. Therefore, please provide more food and enrichment especially during these occasions.
Daily enrichment such as food hidden in different places by keepers for the pandas to find, toys for them to play with, interaction with zookeepers, fun in the snow and any activities that make them happy, active, challenged and minimizes the risks of stereotypical and self-harming behavior. Memphis Zoo might also want to encourage fans to donate toys to the pandas in consultation with the keepers to ensure the toys are safe and suitable for the pandas to play with.
End the pandas’ long caging periods in the ‘den’ and exhibit room. It is healthy for them to spend more time outdoors in their yards when the weather permits.
Regular online conferences with Chinese panda specialists to discuss, effectively diagnose and treat YaYa’s health issues so that experts from both Memphis and China are together focused to successfully treat her.
In conclusion, we firmly believe that after more than 18 years of service to Memphis Zoo, it is time for YaYa and LeLe to return to their homeland to retire peacefully in China, the natural home of giant pandas.
Memphis Zoo calls the pandas “geriatric,” and if that were the case, YaYa and LeLe should retire where they can receive special care from the experienced panda keepers and medical team in China. The Dujiangyan Base in China is, without a doubt, a far more superior place of residence for YaYa and LeLe’s recovery than Memphis Zoo.
The Dujiangyan base of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, the world's only "nursing home" for elderly captive pandas is the best retirement/living environment for pandas where they get to enjoy their natural habitat, several varieties of high-quality bamboo and nutritious bamboo shoots with experienced panda experts to care for them.
Former San Diego Zoo elderly pandas, GaoGao and BaiYun, now 31 and 30 years old respectively, are comfortably retired in the Dujiangyan base. The Dujiangyan base is home to 17 returned overseas panda stars and many retired elderly pandas like Shulan. For sickly pandas like YaYa and LeLe, it is crucial for them to have access to environmental enrichment, special diet, and special care by panda experts.
An introduction for Dujiangyan base and the daily care they give to the retired pandas
YaYa and LeLe have earned and deserve a happy and healthy retirement after all these years serving the public in a zoo. We hope that Memphis Zoo is able to find it within them to have some compassion for YaYa and LeLe and act in their best interest at this point in their lives. Please, send YaYa and LeLe back to China to retire comfortably.