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With the giant pandas set leave in March after a high-profile and costly five-year stay, Morgan Bocknek examines the program's mixed results and what comes next for the Toronto Zoo

Jia Panpan, left, and his sister, Jia Yueyue, giant panda cubs born at the Toronto Zoo, who will turn two years old later this month, are pictured in the panda pavilion on Thursday. In March, 2018, the cubs, their mother, Er Shun, and another adult panda, Da Mao, will be heading to the Calgary Zoo for a five-year stay before heading back to China.

Jia Panpan is the "mama's boy." The young panda, whose Chinese name means "Canadian Hope," is happy to spend his days cuddling or wrestling with his mother, says Maria Franke, curator of mammals at Toronto Zoo. His sister, Jia Yueyue (Canadian Joy), on the other hand, is more of an independent soul. "She just wants to go play and explore."

The two pandas, who will celebrate their second birthday this weekend with an exclusive private party, were born at the zoo to great excitement. But as they and Er Shun, their mother, and male panda Da Mao prepare to leave Toronto for Calgary in March, the zoo is left trying to reconcile the program's successes and failures.

While saying the pandas will be missed, Christina McKenzie, president of CUPE Local 1600, which represents more than 400 zoo employees, admitted to mixed feelings about whether the investment was wise. The costs of keeping the pandas put off renovations and improvements for the zoo's hundreds of other inhabitants.

"There are animals that really need to be paid attention to now that haven't been getting the attention they should have over the last few years," Ms. McKenzie said.

"Had you asked us before the pandas arrived if we'd rather have brought them in or have worked on getting the orangutans outside five years sooner, I think most of us would have picked the latter."

Er Shun and Da Mao arrived in Toronto in 2013 with much fanfare. To city officials, they represented a marketing opportunity and a chance to broaden outreach efforts to China and Chinese-Torontonians.

Since their appearance, the bears have generated plenty of chatter – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to cuddle with the cubs on their first birthday. But, financially, the pandas were a disappointment.

Attendance fell considerably short of the zoo's targets, and the number of visitors failed to offset the extraordinary cost of housing and, especially, feeding them.

Wildlife health technician Stephanie Fleming, left, and veterinarian Dr. Pauline Delnatte examine a red panda.

Together, the four bears consumed nearly a third of the zoo's annual food budget last year.

That food – the majority of which consists of a special type of bamboo that needs to be shipped twice a week from Memphis, Tenn. – cost a staggering $420,000 each year. (By comparison, in 2016, food for all the other animals in the zoo cost roughly $1-million.) Supplementary shipments of bamboo were brought in from Cincinnati and Niagara Region in case the pandas were put off by the original offering.

And the pandas came with other costs: As part of the loan deal with China, the zoo agreed to pay $1-million (U.S.) annually to the Giant Panda Conservation Fund.

Converting the existing Amur tiger exhibit to accommodate the giant pandas, including indoor and outdoor habitats, cost about an another $3-million (Canadian).

In order to defray their expense, the zoo expected the pandas to cause a major spike in visits, but the upticks never materialized.

In 2013, more than 1.4 million people showed up to see elders Er Shun and Da Mao. It was the zoo's third highest attendance since opening in 1974 and its highest revenue year to date, but fell short of its 1.6 million attendance target.

A year after their arrival, attendance was down more than a fifth and revenue down 14 per cent. The zoo attributed these shortfalls to a new competitor on the scene, Ripley's Aquarium, and bad weather. The zoo hasn't hit an attendance target since.

Still, the disappointing turnout doesn't mean the city-owned non-profit organization is facing a budget crisis: Its steadily rising revenue over all has enabled the city to reduce its annual funding commitment over the years, from 75 per cent of the zoo's budget to its current level of 22 per cent.

Jia Panpan, left, and his mother Er Shun munch on bamboo leaves at the Toronto Zoo panda pavilion. The Toronto Zoo is one of four zoos in North America to host pandas for conservation breeding purposes.

So were the pandas worth the trouble? Councillor Paul Ainslie, chair of the zoo's board of managers, said they have been "a great feather in our cap." Mr. Ainslie said the city's attendance expectations were outdated by two decades, since they were based on the first time Toronto played host to pandas. As the city has grown, there are more entertainment options.

"[Pandas] also helped illustrate the conservation programs that we have on at the zoo. We're not just a zoo that has animals in cages. We have a world renowned conservancy program for species, we have a wildlife centre that just opened, great conservancy programs, medical programs for looking after animals … I think it's really helped highlight that," he said. "I don't regret that the pandas came to the zoo."

Earning the right to host Er Shun and Da Mao in 2013 was a coup for the zoo. It is one of only four zoos in North America to host pandas for conservation breeding purposes.

"They only put them with zoos that are accredited and highly professional," said Jennifer Tracey, the zoo's senior director of marketing, communications and partnerships. "We and the Calgary Zoo fit that really tight criteria."

During the time that the zoo had the pandas, the species' status has been downgraded from endangered to vulnerable. "That's the ultimate conservation goal for any biologist," said Ms. Franke, the curator of mammals.

The birth of the cubs in 2015 was even more notable, the first of its kind in Canada and a rare event globally.

The window to impregnate a female panda is short. To birth twins is rare, and even less certain, is the survival of both cubs. One baby would typically be favoured and raised.

In their early infancy, the twins were swapped between their mother's care and assistance from zookeepers, but at four months, Er Shun was given both her cubs.

Giant Panda Er Shun is pictured. Once the pandas leave, their enclosure will be converted back for use by the tigers.

"The fact that [Er Shun] has successfully been able to raise two cubs … it's just very cool," Ms. Franke said.

Once the pandas leave, their enclosure will be converted back for use by the tigers. Elsewhere the zoo is also making changes, both to improve conditions for the animals and to attract more money from visitors once they are through the gate. The 2018 priorities set by the zoo propose improvements to the orangutan enclosure, building an " eco-trek adventure" and marketing the zoo's event space.

But the zoo shouldn't expect any additional funds from Toronto to support these endeavours. The City has asked all its divisions, including the zoo, to flat line their budgets. The most recent proposition put forward by the zoo's board would increase their budget by $4-million to curb costs of a month-long strike that closed the grounds this past spring.

It's been a sore point for some councillors who think the money lost in the strike could have been spent elsewhere.

Councillor Mary Fragedakis, a zoo board member, bristles at the expense and wants the zoo to create a better strategic vision in the face of increased competition. "I guess they're going to have to pull out all the stops to try to really focus their marketing efforts to make sure that sales go up as the sun will set on the panda exhibit."

Ms. McKenzie is optimistic the pandas' departure will force the zoo to refocus on aging facilities. In her words, it's a tired place and development isn't happening fast enough to fulfill the zoo's vision of being a wildlife conservation leader.

The zoo's development for the next two decades is guided by a master plan that not only aims to continue its care of animals, but "enhance the guest experience to appeal to a more diverse – and increasingly urban – audience."

"The master plan is a beautiful document, but now they've really gotta roll up their sleeves and work on making it a reality," Ms. McKenzie said.