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Da Mao, the male giant panda at the Toronto Zoo, is relatively comfortable with the large crowds he has been attracting. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Da Mao, the male giant panda at the Toronto Zoo, is relatively comfortable with the large crowds he has been attracting. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

A peek at the pandas: Checking in with the Toronto Zoo’s big stars Add to ...

Pandas have a reputation for being silent, but they do make a sound. It’s a goat-like bleat and 10-year-old Ally Godfrey and her mother are hoping to hear it.

It’s 10 a.m. on a sunny weekday and they are among the excited onlookers crowding around the giant pandas’ enclosure, straining to get a peek at the Toronto Zoo’s new arrivals.

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Two of the city’s biggest stars, giant pandas Da Mao and Er Shun, are quiet today, but for Ally and her mom, Jackie Callis, even watching them sleep is exciting.

“He just yawned! Look at his face. He’s so cute,” Ms. Callis says, pointing at the male, Da Mao, who is dozing on a rock.

Da Mao, 4, and Er Shun, a five-year-old female, arrived via a special FedEx flight in March. They will stay in Canada for 10 years before returning to China, spending the second half of their visit at the Calgary Zoo.

The Toronto exhibit opened to the public May 18, and on busy days more than 20,000 visitors have crowded in to see these endangered animals up close.

The Toronto Zoo anticipates 900,000 people will take in the exhibit over the next five years. There are also hopes the endangered creatures will breed before they leave town. Here’s a look at how it’s going so far:

 

Panda personalities

Both bears are settling in well, the zoo says, but Da Mao is clearly more comfortable with his celebrity status. He’s breaking the shy-panda stereotype.

“I get the biggest treat out of the way Da Mao struts out like he could be Mick Jagger,” says Dr. William Rapley, the zoo’s executive director of conservation, education and wildlife. “I call him the rock star. He likes people.”

Da Mao likes to lie on his back and eat bamboo while staring out at the crowd.

“It could be packed and he still sits there and he looks at the people. It’s almost as if he’s saying, ‘I can’t believe all these people are here to watch me eat bamboo,’” Dr. Rapley says.

Er Shun prefers to stay closer to home, for now at least. She’s “a bit more shy,” Dr. Rapley says. “She’s not quite as used to the big crowds, so we’re working with her.”

The zoo is training her to move in and out of displays and stay still for examinations by rewarding good behaviour with treats such as apples.

But if she gets homesick, a friendly face is nearby. Two experts have accompanied the pandas from China to ensure the transition is smooth.

Mingxi Li is an animal nutritionist from Da Mao’s former home, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Wei Guo was curator of the panda house at Chongqing Zoo, where Er Shun lived. They are working with staff and will stay six months, living in a house at the zoo.

Panda etiquette

At the San Diego Zoo, one of only five other facilities in North America with giant pandas, visitors are encouraged to maintain panda etiquette by not making any sudden noises.

“Sudden changes in noise level tend to cause stress in most mammals, and we work to reduce this stress by keeping a constant quiet level of noise around them,” said Christina Simmons, a public relations representative with the San Diego Zoo, in an e-mail. They do this by keeping educators at the exhibit.

The Toronto Zoo, too, has staff on hand at the exhibit dedicated to educating visitors about the pandas and monitoring their behaviour around them.

Panda ‘porn’

The two pandas won’t associate much until they are ready for breeding, which the zoo will start trying when Da Mao is between 7 and 8. He’ll turn 5 in September.

Breeding is important because the giant panda is an endangered species. But in captivity pandas have been known to be uninterested in mating. The zoo will try natural breeding first, and then discuss artificial insemination.

Some zoos in China have encouraged pandas to mate by showing them videos of other pandas breeding.

So-called “panda porn” has reportedly been successful, but Dr. Rapley says there are, “so far, no plans to use any movies.”

For now, Canada’s most famous Chinese visitors are settling in to their new routine, which includes a lot of eating and sleeping.

Bamboo, which makes up more than 90 per cent of the panda’s diet, will be shipped in from a panda-specific plantation in Tennessee, near the Memphis Zoo.

“A lot of their time is spent eating bamboo. They’ll eat like crazy and then have a nap,” Dr. Rapley says. “It’s a perfect life.”

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