The giant panda is so adorable that even its poop doesn’t smell.
At least that’s what a guide told Lincoln High School students Friday at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
The giant pandas eat so much bamboo and absorb so little that it goes straight through them and initially smells like bamboo, the guide said. None of the 97 Lincoln students got close enough for a smell test, but they did get close enough to agree on what they had already come to believe: Pandas are cute.
“I just want to take one home,” said junior Haley Naparan. “They’re so adorable. I get so weak-hearted around them.”
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About 100 pandas are housed at the sanctuary, with another 1,800 in the wild and several hundred more in captivity around the world. Ron Chow, a Lakewood businessman, is heading a drive to bring a pair to Washington state.
Chow, who is traveling with the students, said Friday that despite tepid interest from zoos in Tacoma and Seattle, he would find a home for them if the Chinese government were to offer a pair to his group, the Washington Panda Foundation.
Chow, who flew Friday to Beijing with the students, will return to Chengdu on Tuesday for an international conference, then fly home Oct. 21. He expects to update the public on progress in obtaining pandas and meet with representatives of the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma and the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle about becoming their keepers if he is successful.
“It would be good for the region, for tourism, the symbol of friendship between the two countries,” said Chow, who was born in Hong Kong. “I don’t see any drawback whatsoever.”
However, Point Defiance officials have said the zoo doesn’t have a space suitable for pandas, and worry about the cost and whether the pandas’ popularity would cause traffic and parking problems.
To host pandas, U.S. zoos must pay the Chinese government $1 million a year, and commit to housing them for at least 10 years. Other costs include extra zookeepers and the difficulty of maintaining the animals’ bamboo diet.
Three of the four U.S. zoos with pandas — in Memphis, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. — lost $1 million to $4 million annually on the animals from 2004 to 2013, according to the nonprofit Giant Panda Conservation Foundation. The San Diego Zoo lost money housing the animals between 1996 and 2010, and only recently began to turn a profit.
Seattle zoo officials have expressed similar concerns about how much the animals would cost.
None of that mattered much on Friday, when the Lincoln students saw a few of the 23 baby pandas born this year, along with a couple of adults. The students also viewed red pandas, which are small animals not closely related to the giant panda.
Most of the time, the panda babies were asleep, but the students couldn’t help but notice the “cuteness overload,” as Victoria Nuon called it. At least several students, including Nuon, wished they could take a panda home.
Katelyn Wear, who asked Lincoln principal Patrick Erwin before the trip about the possibility of kidnapping a panda, concocted a fantasy one Friday.
“So we were going to get a stuffed animal panda, take the baby and put the fake one in its place,” she said. “They wouldn’t realize that the baby was gone until we had already left.”
At the end of their visit, all of the pandas were accounted for.
The giant pandas are voracious eaters, which fascinated the students.
“They were just eating bamboo, one after another,” Askia Amen said. “They weren’t even taking a break.”
While one was eating full time, another was lounging around in a tree. They eat and sleep about an equal amount during a typical day.
Adults consume up to 88 pounds of bamboo a day, the guide said, but they don’t gain weight after reaching full size – up to 330 pounds – because they absorb only about 20 percent.
To meet this appetite, the sanctuary’s staff members pick up bamboo every day from a growing area two hours’ drive away.
In the wild, the pandas would have to harvest the bamboo themselves, but at the Chengdu base, they are provided with piles of short pieces of bamboo.
They like room service, especially the females. When pregnant, they get special care, including better food and an enclosure with air conditioning to make life more comfortable in the hot and humid summers in Chengdu in south-central China.
Females who aren’t pregnant don’t want to be left out, so they fake a pregnancy. Even a blood test can’t confirm a pregnancy, the guide said, because they have the ability to change their hormone levels. They get room service, too, until keepers can determine they won’t give birth.
Giant pandas are loners, even in the wild, and as a result, they sometimes need help learning how to do it. Enter panda porn. Chengdu staff members show pandas how-to video, and it seems to work.
The species is making a rebound, thanks to the Chinese government’s efforts in forest protection and reforestation, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said in a report last month.
The organization removed the giant panda from the endangered list. Instead, it is listed as vulnerable.
The Chinese State Forestry Administration disputed the conservation group’s decision in a statement to The Associated Press, saying pandas struggle to reproduce in the wild and live in small groups spread widely apart.
News Tribune staff writer Melissa Santos contributed to this report.
Jonathan Nesvig, a former News Tribune reporter, is traveling with the Lincoln High School students in China.
On Saturday, the Lincoln High School students will visit to the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in Beijing.