Nobody knows Bao Bao or Bei Bei better than Juan Rodriguez, the former National Zoo volunteer turned veteran panda-keeper. A day in the life of the man who cares for Washington’s most obsessed-over animals.
“I get to work at 6:20. We fill out daily reports, as detailed as possible—we have to think about what’ll be useful for future panda-keeper generations.”
“Those are little gifts that our panda fans give us here and there. Jill Biden sent us that letter when we lost our cub in 2012. It was really heartfelt.”
“They have to physically manipulate items like this PVC-pipe feeder to get the biscuits out. Tian Tian will roll his around. Mei Xiang will lay on her back and shake it. ”
“They love sweets. Sometimes we’ll give them a whole sweet potato or smear it on their toys, on the rockwork, on the walls, and they can lick it up.”
“When I clean, I assess their urine and fecal production. What people don’t realize is it smells like cut grass—has a slight fermented smell to it, a pleasant smell.”
“When we examine Bei Bei, he usually comes out sound asleep. He’s just sitting there like a bag of potatoes. Here they were noticing his canines erupt a little bit.”
“Bei Bei likes to be cradled a lot. I basically carry him like a baby. He seems to get that from his mom. When he’s awake, he squirms a lot. He was really quiet when he was young, and now he’s really vocal.”
“We started training Bao Bao from an early age to be ambidextrous for blood draws. Like humans, sometimes the right arm vein isn’t as good as the left.”
“When she was younger, Bao Bao would run off at night and play in the yard. My hope—based on what I’m seeing—is Bei Bei won’t be as free-spirited as Bao Bao.”
“The good thing about the cameras is they’re infrared. I don’t have to turn on lights. I look at all four pandas and do a head count to make sure everyone is well.”
“I put out new bamboo every hour so the leaves are nice and moist. The fresher the bamboo, the happier they’ll be. I usually put out eight to ten pounds.”
“We order panda skulls from SkullsUnlimited.com. Especially for endangered species, we use replicas as educational props—if it breaks, there’s no problem.”
“I borrowed a Fitbit from my wife because I was really curious how many footsteps I track in one day. By the end of the day, it was like ten miles. It was a crazy number.”
This article appears in our December 2015 issue of Washingtonian.