From the moment the two giant pandas – Er Shun and Da Mao – landed safe and sound to spend the next five years at the Toronto Zoo, Tim and I knew we’d be attending any kind of member preview being held for the pair. In part so that we could see them with less of a crowd, and in part because we love being members at the zoo, and always try to experience as much of it as we possibly can.
So when this particular opportunity came up, we both booked the day off work and eagerly awaited our chance to see the breeding pair of pandas for the first of what will no doubt be many, many times!
Unlike the white lion cub preview, which was held in the evening just after the zoo closed to the public, the panda exhibit was opened up to members for an entire day, and we were able to reserve spots within half hour time slots via the zoo’s website. Tim was still in Bermuda when the member opportunity went up, so I booked us a time slot in the morning – hoping the bears would still be awake, but allowing us the chance to get up there on transit in time for our reservation.
The day finally arrived, and the sun came out to greet us; blue skies providing the perfect morning backdop for our exciting journey. Even the bus ride was exciting, as we found out that our usual route didn’t take us all the way into the zoo on weekdays, and we had to wait for the 86 bus to come up from Kennedy station to take us the rest of the way. Luckily, however, we arrived with a few minutes to spare, so we checked in and made our way over the the entrance to the exhibit. NO trouble finding it, either – there were signs everywhere and we knew the path well, thanks to our beloved Stingray Bay exhibit from the previous years.
There’s a huge panda-fied arch to walk under on the way into the exhibit, and it was there we were greeted by several volunteers who were responsible for coordinating the lines and making sure people entered during their reserved time slot. Through the arch, we found ourselves in a lovely landscaped garden-y area, with gorgeous trees and plants and benches, and signs describing each animal in the Chinese zodiac placed throughout. Tim and I each found ours while waiting in line. I’m a Rat. 🙂
(NOTE: It has long been a debate between friends that pandas are too cute to exist in nature, so when I brought up the fact that the Chinese Zodiac has a Dragon but not a Panda, I was reminded immediately by my co-worker friend that it’s because, “Pandas aren’t real.” After having seen them now in person, I have to say…I agree.)
One of my worries going into this – my only worry, in fact – was that even with reserved time slots, the exhibit would be too crowded, and we’d have a hard time working our way up to the front where we could see the black and white furballs without being crushed and jostled along. It turns out that I need not have been concerned. The line outside of the massive tent housing the Panda Interpretive Centre moved quite quickly, and it was so peaceful and nice out in the garden area that I didn’t mind even waiting as long as we did!
Once we got inside (after a momentary feeling of sadness from missing the stingrays), Tim and I took our time (as the volunteers had suggested), looking at all of the displays and working our way through each part of the exhibit. There is a LOT of information in that one spacious and comfortable, temperature-regulated room. I’ve been reading about these specific pandas since it was announced that they would be coming here, and trying to learn as much as I can about the species in general. I also spend an inordinate amount of time watching the mother and cub on webcam at the San Diego Zoo – maybe Toronto will consider putting in webcams sometime so that people like I can get absolutely NO work done during the day! 😉
At any rate, I learned a good deal more just by going through the Interpretive Centre, and I feel like I really only scratched the surface of what there is to see and do there. I didn’t even play the game on the giant screen! And there is a video playing that is AWESOME – I only saw parts of it, so I want to try and watch the whole thing through one of these days, too. I highly recommend taking your time going through the Interpretive Centre when you visit Er Shun and Da Mao at the Toronto Zoo. You’ll learn a lot, and it’ll make the experience of actually seeing them that much more fulfilling. I can’t recommend it enough!
Finally, the moment we’d been waiting for had arrived. Tim and I worked our way through the faux-bamboo “forest” and out of the Interpretive Centre, where still more volunteers let us know what was going on past that point. There is a very generous space of varying enclosures – Er Shun had decided to stay indoors in one of them, while Da Mao was rocking the huge outdoor exhibit for the day. We waited in another quick-moving line to go meet Er Shun, and let me just start off by saying – she was totally worth it. What an amazing and gorgeous girl she is! At 5 years of age, Er Shun is the older of the pair, and also more the shy, nervous one. She did great at her big debut, however, just chillin’ inside and happily eating her mounds of bamboo. People took turns pressing up against the glass to see her and take pictures, and I was happy to see that everyone was well-behaved. Not too loud, no pounding on the glass to get her attention – everyone seemed happy just to be there and to see Er Shun in person at long last. Even though she was in the smaller enclosure, I noticed that it’s laid out very well, in a way that affords several decent views of the bear once you get close enough to the front. I took some shots and moved off to one side to give Tim and other people a chance, and realized that I could still see her – so I took some more photos while I could! The girl herself looked pretty comfortable and content, and that alone did my heart a lot of good. I love to see happy animals who are being well taken care of!
Then it was time to go meet Da Mao. We went back outside and walked up a small hill along a large fenced enclosure, and tried to anticipate where he was by the spot where the majority of the crowd was gathering, but it actually took a moment, because again, the way it’s laid out gave us a whack of viewing options to choose from. We were actually able to crane over a few shoulders and between a few heads to see where Da Mao was propped on the grass, and moments later a spot opened up right up front, so we settled in to watch him, and take more photos than probably were necessary. It took maybe three seconds for me to be overwhelmed and exclaim, “Oh my God you’re SO HANDSOME!!!”
I swear he looked right at me.
At four years of age, Da Mao is pretty much a superstar already. He is the goofy grinner to Er Shun’s regal demeanor, and he ploughed through large bamboo stalks like a champ. I could hear it cracking and popping from where I stood, and he really did seem to be relishing every moment he spent there in the sunshine at centre stage. Not one to be put off by a crowd, Da Mao almost seemed to welcome us, sitting right down in front where he could be close to everyone, and yet still visible to most. I’m sure it was all about the bamboo, really, but I like to think that Da Mao’s cool, more relaxed personality lets him chill at the centre of attention without missing a beat. Such a dude, that Da Mao. 🙂
Soon it was time for us to move on, and explore some of our other favourite critters in the rest of the zoo, while letting more members stream through this fantastic new exhibit. The Toronto Zoo has done an incredible job of setting up an exemplary exhibit and temporary new home for these beautiful giant pandas. The exhibit is called the “Giant Panda Experience”, and an experience is exactly what it is. From the calming zen garden area out front, through the vast expanse of the Interpretive Centre, and across the amazing and spacious layout of the large enclosures for the pandas themselves, each moment through the arch is a delightful learning experience, and no two trips are alike.
Welcome to Canada, Er Shun and Da Mao! We’re very glad you’re here!
Of course, once you leave the presence of Da Mao and Er Shun, you then have to figure a way to get through the new gift shop without buying everything, and there is a restaurant/seating/viewing area at the far end of the main enclosure where Da Mao was holding court all weekend, as well. I look forward to spending many an hour enjoying the Giant Panda Experience over the next five years, and I highly encourage you to do the same, if you get the opportunity.
My next task, of course, is to introduce Er Shun and Da Mao to my mom!