What It’s Really Like to Be a Baby Panda Handler

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what their daily grind entails. This week, Emily Noel, a wildlife keeper at the Toronto Zoo—and one of the lucky few to work with the giant panda cubs—gives us a glimpse into her wild work day

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Emily and Da Mao

Noel and Da Mao

Age: 27

Education: Bachelors of Science in wildlife biology from the University of Guelph.

Length of time at current gig: Five years.

So what does a zookeeper do? It’s not as glamorous as it seems. With the pandas, it’s a lot of feeding and cleaning up poop. But with the babies here, it’s also interacting with them, so I do bottle feeding, I make sure they pee and poo properly and that they’re nursing and interacting with their mum, Er Shun.

What drew you to this line of work? I knew that I wanted to work with education and nature. It was tough getting into different government education programs because of the recession, so I just happened to fall into the zoo. I always loved animals and working outside, so it just seemed like the perfect mix.

Do you work with all types of animals? I transferred to the pandas a few months ago, but for the previous two years I was working in Outreach and Discovery, where I worked with birds of prey and other species, like goats, donkeys, ferrets, macaws, chinchillas and capybaras.

Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue, the Toronto Zoo’s giant panda cubs

Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue, the Toronto Zoo’s giant panda cubs

How is taking care of pandas different from caring for other animals? It’s definitely more particular. There’s a lot of weighing their poop to make sure they’re eating enough. They can be very picky, so we have to keep changing types of bamboo. There are a lot of tiny little things that we have to learn and apply when we’re working with them.

What are your work hours? With the pandas, we provide 24-hour care, so I work eight-hour shifts and every other weekend. It’s not like that in other areas of the zoo, but with pandas it’s round-the-clock care because we have to keep a close eye on the cubs and Er Shun. She’s a new mum, so there are special concerns. For example, if she’s sleeping with one of the babies, she might roll over onto it and not realize it.

Do you have to do anything special because Er Shun had twins? In the wild, if a giant panda had twins, she would let the weaker twin die because she doesn’t have enough milk to sustain them both. In zoos, we’re able to “twin swap” the cubs; taking one baby from the mum and then giving her the other one, so both babies get enough milk from her (we also supplement that with formula). Other zoos have failed at the twin swapping because the mother panda is too aggressive and protective, but Er Shun was easy to work with.

What do you wear at work? We have a standard uniform, but we wear a lab coat if there are babies because we want to make sure they’re as healthy as possible, and a lot of cubs could get sick from different bacteria on you. We wear the coats to protect them.

Have you noticed personalities emerging in the twins? Definitely. At first, the boy one, Jia Panpan, would sleep more and flop around—he wasn’t too steady on his feet—and the little girl, Jia Yueyue, was already walking pretty well. But now, Jia Panpan is a lot feistier than his sister.

Is there something people might not realize about pandas? Normally pandas just flop onto their backs and eat and look like very lazy animals. But, when they want to, they can be extremely fast. They can snap up from lying on their backs and be aggressive if they need to be.

Noel and her colleague toting the twins

Noel and her colleague toting the twins

What’s your favourite animal to work with? Woodchucks, also known as groundhogs, because they are very under-appreciated. People see them all of the time, yet don’t know anything about them, so it was very rewarding to educate the public about them. When I started training and socializing three newborns, Banjo, Fiddles and Spoons, they quickly became my favourites.

What is the best part of your day? Giving “enrichment” to the animals. That’s when we try to get the animal to display their natural behaviours, so they’re using the same mental and physical muscles that they would in the wild. Like, with a turkey vulture, we might put his food in a box, so that he has to rip through it in order to get at his food. This is similar to it ripping through any carcass he might find in the wild.

What’s the worst part of your day? Dealing with the bamboo. The pandas enjoy choice—even if they eat five kilos in a couple of hours, we need to give them 10 or 15 kilos so they can have the fun of sorting through it like they would in the wild. So, we unload a FedEx truck of bamboo on a regular basis. It’s uniquely frustrating because bamboo is surprisingly heavy and does its own thing. There are all these little branches that will fly out or poke you.

There’s a lot of debate over the idea of keeping animals in captivity, what’s your take? I think zoos are very important for conservation and for education. If we didn’t have zoos, a lot of species, like black-footed ferrets or Puerto Rican crested toads, would become extinct.

If someone wanted to work in a zoo, what attributes do they need? Reading an animal’s behaviour is essential for zookeeping because a lot of it is watching the animal and being able to tell if they’re sick or something is disturbing them. You need not only a love of animals, but also the ability to understand them, respect them and learn from them.

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