Exclusive Interview: A Panda Nanny from Hong Kong
How does it feel taking care of the “national treasure”?
2023-12-08 by Howey Li & Kathy Yin
Whether it’s a poaching hot in summer or a freezing cold in winter, venue (Hong Kong Ocean Park) where Giant Pandas “Ying Ying” and “Le Le” live, is always cozy and pleasing.
To make sure the giant pandas to have the most comfortable temperature in where they live, it is usually kept between 18 and 24 degrees Celsius. It’s even better outside their bedroom, which is fully furnished: waterfalls, streams, boulders and climbing frames, just to create a mini mountain and water habitat.
Around 10 a.m. in the morning, we arrived at giant pandas’ “home” in Ocean Park. “Le Le” woke up by natural call, while “Ying Ying” is still snoozing. The careful caregiver hesitated to wake her up, didn’t wish to bother her beautiful dream.
No sooner, “Le Le” showed up leisurely, heading straight for the fresh bamboo that his “nanny” had prepared in the morning and started his meal time.
“They will be fed four times every day. Besides 30 to 35 kg bamboo leaves, they will be supplemented with carrots, sweet potatoes, jicamas, Fuji apples, pears and other fruits and vegetables.”
The panda keeper, aka “cartoon panda nanny”, is Matt Leung. He has curly hair and black glasses; Matt is entitled, assistant curator at Ocean Park Corporation. Since he joined in 2010, he has been attending to “national treasures” – now almost 14 years gone by.
Four Giant Pandas altogether – “Le Le” and “Ying Ying”, together with “Jia Jia” and “An An” (the latter two passed away due to old age) – were gifted to Hong Kong by the Central Government. They are the most beloved and endearing treasures in everyone’s heart.
So, when Matt, who previously worked with marine animals, was assigned to take care of the Giant Pandas when joining Ocean Park, he felt immensely “lucky” but also under great pressure.
“Giant panda isn’t yet the species I’m familiar at the start. They’re cute, they can curl up like rice ball, and they may sleep off for the whole day. Still, it is a big test for me at time,” said Matt.
Matt actually has a university degree in Psychology. Because of his academic background, he knows how to watch closely & give careful guidance to the pandas. For instance, it may just happen that “An An” doesn’t want to take medicine, Matt will have his own to deal with this – spending time and pampering along – “Just like coaxing a baby.”
After long time working together, Matt and these pandas have developed a deep relationship – the kind sustained by mutual trust and co-dependence. “An An” now counts on Matt with medicine, while “Le Le” will get near to Matt for more bond-building pat. “These are signs they both see us as their family.”
For the past 13 years, Matt has evolved – he is no longer a first-time panda keeper; he becomes an admirable panda “nanny”. In his eyes, every panda has its own personality traits and thus, behavior patterns.
“Jia Jia is usually quiet; An An is a never-grown-up child who only takes medicine with added sweet flavor; Le Le is soft and gentle when eating; Ying Ying is a natural explorer and always in the mood to play, etc & etc.” Matt couldn’t stop smiling when he talked about his babies.
However, above all the joy and happiness, this task is a heavy responsibility. “Attending to the daily needs of pandas is by no means easy,” said Matt. “Giant pandas are usually slow, this may take long time to watch their changing preference and need, and their daily meals’ intake and behavior must be recorded carefully.”
Matt recalled once “An An” did not walk to the lowlands anymore (which is not normal); he called this to the attention of veterinarian, just in case. It turns out An An’s arthritis had turned bad. “Though I still call this luck to look after them, the commitment I must dedicate to them is getting bigger and bigger.”
Matt also explained, his daily duties isn’t just looking after the pandas, he also needs to educate the public, which is also a crucial part of his job.
Matt, like any other devoted caretaker, considers the pandas’ happiness as his. He is also trying to pass on this joy and fun working with the pandas to the public. “We spend long time with the pandas every day, and I am thinking that we could video-tape the pleasing and amusing moments spending with these pandas – the thing is there is great chance visitors come by the time they are sleeping.”
“I am grateful for people’s constant support, and I hope that people will continue to learn more about pandas, and the nature of work by their caregivers,” Matt said.
(All photos credit to HKCNA)