The pandas at Zoo Atlanta like three things, according to the zoo’s staff: eating, sleeping and walking around checking stuff out.
They really like eating.
“When pandas are eating, that’s when they’re happy,” says Kenn Harwood, assistant curator of mammals at the zoo, watching as Yang Yang, a 20-year-old male, sits in his enclosure, legs splayed out in front of him, munching thoughtfully on a pawful of leaves.
“For lack of a better term, he’s a big goofball,” Harwood says. “He’s everybody’s favorite. He’s a great guy. He’s about 300 pounds. Eats a lot of bamboo a day.”
Bamboo makes up 98 to 99 percent of pandas’ diets. The zoo’s four pandas go through more than 200 pounds of bamboo every day.
All that bamboo isn’t shipped in from somewhere else. It comes from backyards all over Atlanta, harvested by Zoo Atlanta’s bamboo team.
One morning, the bamboo team is in a Roswell yard, harvesting the yellow groove bamboo the pandas like best.
“We’re always looking for this variety,” says Miles Kendall, lead tech of Zoo Atlanta’s bamboo team, as he ducks into a thicket of bamboo to slice down the tall stalks.
This backyard in Roswell happens to have a good amount of yellow groove bamboo, so the Zoo Atlanta team has come here several times. They don’t even see the homeowner, they just start cutting.
The bamboo team only uses hand tools like loppers and handsaws, no motors or gas. They cut about 400 pounds a day, from neighborhoods all over Atlanta and as far away as Dahlonega.
To donate bamboo to the zoo, a homeowner can ask the bamboo team — they have a “bamboo hotline” — to come check out what’s growing. If it’s a type the pandas like (according to the zoo, there are more than 20 different kinds of bamboo in the Atlanta area), and if there’s enough of it, the bamboo team will come out and harvest it.
Don’t get them confused with a landscaping company, though, warns Rytis Daujotas, manager of animal nutrition at Zoo Atlanta.
“We have to choose what’s best for the pandas,” he says. “We don’t cut all of it. We leave it for next year to go back. Not clearing, not doing that landscaping type thing.”
In other words, they’re sort of farming Atlanta’s backyard bamboo – only cutting what they need for the animals, leaving enough to grow back so they can come back for more.
Don’t worry about a bamboo shortage, Daujotas says. Bamboo is pretty weedy.
“It’s like kudzu,” he says. “Grows fast and takes over.”
The team harvests bamboo, no matter how cold or hot or mosquito-y, five days a week, all year long. Other Zoo Atlanta animals enjoy bamboo, too, but most of it is for the pandas.
At least, hopefully it’s for the pandas.
“They’re super picky,” says Kendall. “Sometimes we’ll cut it, and if they don’t like it, we have to give it to the elephants or something like that.”
The elephants are less picky, he says. “They’ll eat anything. They’re grateful, we say.”
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