February 9, 2012 6:45 pm
Updated: March 21, 2013 7:11 pm

Calgary, Toronto zoos prepare to welcome pandas on loan from China

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TORONTO – The details are fuzzy and the logistics are up in the air, but the cat’s out of the bag _ pandas are coming to Canada.

A joint statement from Ottawa and the Chinese government announced that a pair of the doe-eyed bears would be loaned to Canadian zoos as part of collaborative research on conservation.

The Calgary Zoo confirmed on Thursday it would play host to the pandas for half of their 10-year stay, with the Toronto Zoo serving as home base for the remaining five years.

Zoo communications manager Laurie Skene said the two governments are still working out details, including the ages and genders of the animals and the zoo they’ll visit first.

The Toronto Zoo declined to comment. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is scheduled to release more information on Saturday as part of his visit to China.

Skene said the Calgary Zoo is abuzz with the prospect of welcoming pandas back to the ground for the first time since 1988, when Qun Qun and Xi Xi’s eight-month sojourn drew record crowds.

Negotiations surrounding the latest pair of pandas were in the works for nearly two years, she said, adding the original plan would have seen them spend time in three cities.

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“It was always for a 10-year loan, but it initially involved three zoos which would have meant a shorter stay in each city,” Skene said in a telephone interview.

“Now that it’s just Toronto and Calgary that are going to be the participant zoos once everything’s finalized,it’s exciting that they’ll be here for longer than we initially thought.”

Skene said the pandas’ arrival will usher in a host of logistical complications, including the question of where to house them. The zoo built a $900,000 enclosure in 1988, but changing standards may require the zoo to upgrade or even completely retool the facilities.

Some groups have expressed concern about Calgary’s suitability for the task. National watchdog ZooCheck Canada said both the Toronto and Calgary venues have been dogged with financial problems that may prevent them from housing the animals adequately.

Campaign’s director Julie Woodyer also voiced concern over Calgary’s track record, which has been marred in recent years by a spate of animal deaths ranging from sting rays to baby elephants. The zoo itself ordered an independent review of its animal care procedures at the end of 2009.

Woodyer said pandas present unique challenges for facilities hoping to house them for long stretches of time.

“All bears, including pandas, are a complex species,” she said. “It takes a great amount of space, in particular. They should be provided with a natural area…having all-live foliage in the enclosure and so on. Bears are pretty complex and one of the animals that is among the worst candidates for captivity.”

Barry Kent MacKay, Canadian representative of Born Free U.S.A., suggested the pandas’ feeding protocols may also pose problems.

The bamboo on which the animals thrive is not naturally available in Canada, and the artificial substitute usually used in captivity often results in higher energy levels that aren’t conducive to life in an enclosure.

But pandas also boast docile dispositions that make life easier on zoo-keepers.

Animal-watchers around the world are drawn to pandas for their winning personalities as much as their physical traits, adding they served as prototypes for the modern-day teddy bear.

Their large heads, soulful eyes, and vulnerable appearance remind people of human infants and trigger desires to fawn over the cuddly critters, he said.

“They’re rolly-polly, they’re innocuous, there’s just something very appealing, and of course they’re rare,” MacKay said. “I think all of that put together makes them a very big draw.”

Skene said the bears appeal will lie mostly in their importance to the environmental movement, since they have emerged as a symbol of global conservation efforts.

MacKay, for his part, hopes the environmental message won’t be lost in the hype over the visiting Pandas.

“What I’m trying to get away from is this knee-jerk sense that if you put two of these cute animals in a cage where Torontonians and Calgarians and visitors to our respective cities get to see them that this translates into education and conservation and science. It doesn’t. It’s just entertainment.”

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