Conditions of Memphis Zoo’s Pandas Raise Big Questions

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Panda lovers worldwide have been in deep discussions via different social media platforms, wondering about the condition of giant pandas YaYa and LeLe, who live at Memphis Zoo in the United States. Photos and videos of these pandas looking very thin and unhealthy have recently reignited this discussion.

Memphis Zoo has denied over and again that there is any health issue with their pandas. Nevertheless, with photos, actual reviews from zoo visitors and facts posted here, we welcome you to see and form your own conclusions. Better yet, visit the pandas in person and see for yourselves.

Background

Over the years, panda lovers all over the world have raised their concerns about YaYa and LeLe, noting that both pandas are too skinny for this kind of animal at any age. The female panda, YaYa, also has visible skin problems all over her body. Despite this, those who have inquired have always obtained the same response from the zoo: that their giant pandas are healthy and just not “photogenic.”

Below, you can see some photos of YaYa taken in December 2014, August 2019 and most recently, taken in January 2021 at the zoo’s facilities. Can you see how much her skin disease has deteriorated over the last 6 years? Have you ever seen any healthy panda in such a worrisome and heartbreaking condition?

YaYa, seen in December 2014. Image credit Laura, CC BY-SA 2.0.
YaYa in August 2019. Image credit David Ellis, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Recent pictures of female giant panda YaYa, taken in January 2021. Image source: @pandainhunger, an account of the Panda Voices group.

Female giant panda YaYa, born in August 2000, and male giant panda LeLe, born in 1998, travelled to Memphis Zoo in 2003. These two fluffy little furballs were excited and curious to step into the unknown, oceans away from their homeland in China.

Today, 18 years later, YaYa and LeLe, at 20 and 22 years old respectively, are far from what we would call happy and well cared for. When visiting these precious bears at the zoo, it is all too easy to notice that something is very wrong. The pandas appear to be thin, malnourished and unhealthy. YaYa looks tragically older than her years, with patches of shedding fur, and she seems very weak. Many videos that have been published on social media also show this appalling reality.

This situation caught the attention of panda lovers across the globe, from Asia, Europe, South America and the United States. Many of them are calling for Memphis Zoo to get a qualified veterinarian to give the pandas a thorough medical check-up immediately so that they can be suitably treated.

Parasite infections

Panda lovers have also called authorities in China to help YaYa. These contacts resulted in both Beijing Zoo and the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens confirming that YaYa does indeed have parasite infections, resulting in skin disease. This was confirmed as far back as 2014 and once again recently in 2020, so it has now been at least 6 years that YaYa has been suffering in such a painful state.

When looking at YaYa in the zoo’s enclosure or even just in photos, anyone can easily see she has an appalling skin disorder, and might also have eye mites, resulting in the white patches around her eyes.

Memphis Zoo and AZA deny health issues

In response to emails from concerned panda lovers, in mid-2020 the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and Memphis Zoo denied that YaYa and LeLe were unwell. They clearly stated that YaYa & LeLe are both healthy with no underlying medical issues, and specifically stressed that YaYa’s skin condition is due to seasonal hormone fluctuations. Fox 13 Memphis also recently published an article with the same response that the AZA and the zoo provided to the public in mid-2020.

A screenshot extracted from this video is presented below. Does this look like a healthy panda with no underlying medical issues?

Two screenshots from a video of YaYa, who has patches of missing fur all over her body. YaYa is seen from behind while sitting (left) and from above while standing (right). Image source @pandainhunger, an account of the Panda Voices group.
Lao LeLe, YaYa’s mother, at around 30 years old. Image source @pandainhunger, an account of the Panda Voices group.

Bad genes?

Some claim that YaYa’s mother Lao LeLe (pictured to the right) had a skin disorder, and that YaYa’s condition is purely genetic. Even at an advanced age, Lao LeLe didn’t look half as bad as YaYa. She had some discoloration on her nose and around her eyes but the rest of her fur was fine. How does a 20 year old daughter look worse than her mother at 30?

Weight

Memphis Zoo claims that YaYa, at 20 years old, weighs 85 kilograms (about 187 pounds), although it looks like she weighs much less, especially when comparing her physical appearance to other female pandas in similar age and weight categories. Some of YaYa’s fans believe that she is much lighter than the zoo claims. Her keepers stress that she has a small frame, but a small-framed female panda weighing 85 kilograms is supposed to look chubby, just like female panda TanTan in Japan’s Kobe Zoo.

According to the Chengdu Panda Base, an adult panda’s weight should be between 80 and 150 kilograms. Assuming YaYa’s weight is indeed 85 kilograms, YaYa is technically not underweight, but she’s definitely on the lower end of average weight. A closer look shows us a pitifully thin panda, especially if we compare her current body shape with old images of her. Only a thorough medical check will be able to diagnose her health issues and recommend appropriate treatment.

Comparison between YaYa, 20 years old and 85 kilograms (top), and female panda TanTan, 25 years old and 80 kilograms (bottom). Images of YaYa sourced from @pandainhunger, an account of the Panda Voices group, and TanTan’s photos sourced with permission from @maroa_panda.

Memphis Zoo’s male giant panda, LeLe, also appears very thin and malnourished. This issue, therefore, does not appear to be isolated to just YaYa. According to Shanghai Zoo, LeLe weighs 90 kilograms, which seems to be rather light for an adult male panda, compared to other male pandas of the same age.

In view of this, visitors of the zoo and many who have seen photos and videos of both pandas are shocked and horrified, wondering why both pandas in Memphis Zoo look so thin and why YaYa looks so weak.

A recent picture taken of LeLe on January 29, 2021 shows a skinny appearance. Image obtained from @pandainhunger, an account of the Panda Voices group.

Chronic mucoid

According to articles published in the past (for example, here, here and here), YaYa also appears to have chronic bouts of mucoid, which is apparently common among captive pandas. In order to relieve these symptoms, the pandas need to eat sufficient varieties of fresh bamboo, including bamboo stalks. Panda lovers wonder whether YaYa and LeLe have sufficient fresh bamboo to eat, and whether they have the variety of food necessary to provide sufficient nutrients for captive pandas.

Bamboo donations

According to the Qinling Giant Panda Research Center of Shaanxi Academy of Forestry, one giant panda needs an area of 17 acres of bamboo in order to have a sufficient diet. Memphis Zoo’s bamboo farm has a dimension of more or less 10 acres, so their bamboo supply does not appear to be sustainable. To meet both pandas’ needs, the zoo, therefore, seems to rely on bamboo donations to complement the bamboo provided by their farm.

Some questions immediately come to mind:

  • Is it not harmful for the pandas to consume bamboo from unknown sources, especially if we take into account that not all varieties are suitable for their diet?
  • Are pesticides used on these unknown bamboo plants? If so, how much?
  • Even if we assume there are minimal or no pesticides used on the bamboo (which we can’t be certain about, unless there is a contract signed with the donors), is there sufficient bamboo variety for YaYa & LeLe’s gut health?

As is common knowledge, bamboo is pandas’ main food source, so relying on local bamboo donations is not safe for the pandas, nor does it guarantee the continuous supply needed for them.

For those who would like to read more, an April 2019 report from the Daily Helmsman covered Memphis Zoo’s request for bamboo donations and the risks inherent for pandas in donated bamboo.

Memphis Zoo’s requests for bamboo donations from locals to help feed the pandas can be seen on their website and other social media.

Stereotypical behavior

Adding to the growing list of issues that have been pointed out by many panda lovers, due to a lack of enrichment over the years, it looks like YaYa and Lele have also developed stereotypical behaviors. In some live camera recordings, YaYa was seen pacing around her enclosure over and over while shaking her head. In another video, LeLe is just sitting playing with his tongue. Such stereotypical behaviors show that the animals are not mentally healthy. Perhaps more enrichment for the pandas, such as provision of more toys and hidden food in their living areas, would help YaYa and LeLe to stay more active and healthy.

Unfortunately, there seems to be very little enrichment, if any, in the panda enclosures at Memphis Zoo. In this video, YaYa shows shocking signs of stereotypical behavior, vigorously shaking her head repeatedly. For the tender hearted, it’s a distressing video to watch, so please be cautioned.

Miscarriages

Publications of YaYa’s several miscarriages in the past also reinforce the concerns of many panda lovers worldwide. Fans do not know if these miscarriages are related to her weight or health issues, so they are really hoping and praying she can get a thorough health check by a suitable veterinarian.

These miscarriages were reported in the media between the years of 2007 and 2012: 2007, 2010, 2012. By 2012, YaYa had already had three miscarriages, and in the same year artificial insemination was performed on her again.

Dental issues

In addition to all the previously mentioned issues, YaYa and LeLe have both been noted to have broken molars. The question therefore arises if this is due to low quality bamboo. What action has Memphis Zoo taken to treat YaYa and LeLe’s teeth, since they are incredibly important for pandas to crush bamboo?

LeLe appears to have dental issues. Photo taken January 2021. Image obtained from @pandainhunger, an account of the Panda Voices group.

Is this a conspiracy?

Comments by Memphis Zoo’s photographer (@pvzphoto) affirming that panda YaYa has a skin condition that requires treatment she is not currently given.

Recently there has been a heated debate on Memphis Zoo’s social media accounts between the panda lovers and the zoo’s defenders. In a recent posts by the zoo’s Instagram account, pictures of YaYa taken by the zoo’s photographer (@pvzphoto) were published. The post received 309 comments as of January 31st, 2021, while the photographer’s defensive comments caught the attention of many. He affirmed that YaYa has a skin disorder, that daily baths would treat her condition and advised the concerned public to learn what’s going on instead of starting a conspiracy. Perhaps the concerned public has already learned the truth.

The photographer’s statements contradicted the zoo’s current position regarding YaYa and raised many questions. If YaYa has a noticeable skin problem, why does Memphis Zoo keep saying the female panda is completely healthy? If she has a skin disease that is making her lose her fur, why does the zoo keep saying this is due to “seasonal hormone fluctuations”? If this skin problem can be treated with daily baths, why don’t the zookeepers bathe her daily, or provide a pool with clean water for her to bathe, which can be seen in other zoos that have pandas in China and other countries?

Is Memphis Zoo really doing their best to care for YaYa? How can they do their best if they deny there is even a problem in the first place? More importantly, is Memphis Zoo able to give YaYa and LeLe the care they deserve?

To further understand this debate, you may read the comments of actual visitors to Memphis Zoo, posted in response to the article published by Fox 13 referenced above.

Memphis Zoo pandas vs other pandas

Some claim that YaYa and LeLe’s declining conditions are due to their age. The photos below compare YaYa and LeLe to other pandas of the same sex and similar age.

A comparison of the appearance of YaYa from Memphis Zoo and other female pandas in four different countries. YaYa is the youngest among them. Image obtained from @pandainhunger, an account of the Panda Voices group.
Top photos: LeLe, 22 years old, from Memphis Zoo. Bottom, left to right: BingXing, 20 years old, from Madrid Zoo; DaDi in 2018 at 26 years old, from Beijing Zoo; and GaoGao, 28 years old, from San Diego Zoo, now in China. Images obtained from @pandainhunger and Panda Voices group.

Other animals at Memphis Zoo

Aside from the pandas, an overview of the other animals’ enclosures at Memphis Zoo does not seem very encouraging. Many negative comments were seen posted on the internet by visitors of the zoo. Their enclosures do not seem very pleasant. Some of them contain garbage and dirty areas, like the gorillas’ enclosure depicted in the photos below. The polar bear also seems to show signs of stereotypical behavior, just like the pandas.

The gorilla enclosure at Memphis Zoo. Photos taken on February 2, 2021. Image obtained with permission from Panda Voices group.

Since it is not the main aim of this article, we will not delve further into the other animals’ issues at this point. But it is clear that the zoo definitely needs to improve for the animals to have better lives. There needs to be better hygiene and more enrichment for the animals.

Please help YaYa and LeLe

Back to the pandas! For healthy nutrition, pandas need certain varieties of bamboo and seem to usually gain weight easily. But if the problem has persisted for several years now, it seems reasonable to request that other possible causes are looked into. If the current veterinarian at Memphis Zoo is not able to determine the cause(s) of their weight loss, it is best to get a second opinion from a qualified veterinarian.

The same applies to YaYa’s skin problem. It is not normal to see a panda losing so much fur. The first step is to recognize that she has a health problem which requires treatment.

We understand that these issues faced by YaYa and LeLe are not typical for other captive pandas around the world, which is all the more reason this needs to be urgently addressed. As the main attraction of Memphis Zoo, both pandas have served the zoo for almost 20 years, and have brought much joy to the visitors. Sadly though, their welfare seems to have been neglected by the zoo.

All animals deserve good quality of life. The reason animals, including pandas, are in such a state in captivity stems from human beings’ greed and desire to constantly exploit the environment in any way we can.

This battle is not against any institution in particular. It is against the exploitation of captive pandas, the lack of care and attention given to them and the indifference shown to these precious creatures. If Memphis Zoo is not able to care for these living treasures as they deserve, we urge the zoo to return precious YaYa and Lele to China, where they can retire comfortably under the care of the best panda experts and close to their natural habitat, enjoying the many varieties of bamboo that they love.

When pandas YaYa and LeLe came to the USA, they were young and beautiful; now they need help. Please help them and write to Memphis Zoo to consistently remind them to get a veterinarian to perform a thorough medical check on both YaYa & LeLe. Please do not wait until it is too late. Get YaYa & LeLe immediate professional medical help so that they can live their best lives comfortably.

You may reach Memphis Zoo via their website or email (zooinfo@memphiszoo.org).



Featured image: YaYa seen at Memphis Zoo in August 2016. Image credit David Ellis, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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Panda Voices is a group of panda lovers from different continents, united to help giant pandas in need. Click to see author's profile.

2 Comments

  1. Venessa Tichnell on

    I was thinking of visiting the Memphis zoo because Pandas are my favorite animal and I want to see one in person , but I do not want to see them unhealthy because it will make sad and also the zoo is 12 hours from where I live, please get a second opinion on their health, because I would love to see the Pandas.

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