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ABC7 goes behind the scenes at the National Zoo's panda house
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ABC7 goes behind the scenes at the National Zoo's panda house

It's the dream job of dream jobs — a panda keeper at the National Zoo.

Maryland native Mariel Lally is with the pandas — Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and Bei Bei — from the moment they wake up to bedtime.

"Really, my whole day is just kind of watching them and seeing what they need and basing what I do off of their needs," Lally said.

It's a day that starts at 7 a.m., well before visitors arrive and when they are the most active, as Lally prepares their feeding, the first of at least three throughout the day.

While the main staples in their diets are apples, carrots and cooked sweet potatoes, all three pandas have their own dietary needs — and preferences.

At 20 years old, aging Tian Tian also gets supplements for arthritis, as does growing Bei Bei, who just celebrated his third birthday August 22. Honey is often used to help hide the supplements, which would otherwise be discovered by the pandas.

"They're pretty smart in that way, and if they taste something they don't like, they know that there might be a supplement or there might be medicine in that food," Lally said. "So the honey is a good way to kind of just disguise it — and like you hear with cartoons — all bears love honey. Our pandas love honey, our sloth bears love honey. It's a favorite for everyone."

Then it's a quick trip to the yard to prepare Bei Bei's surroundings before he comes out — with every need anticipated. Lally prepares puzzle feeders, which the pandas have to “solve” in order to get biscuits, as well the tubs Bei Bei likes to soak in.

"Since I know that he really enjoys to eat his bamboo and sit in his tub, I like to make sure he has a piece of bamboo by his special tub for the day," she said.

The panda keepers' activities are all on a tight schedule, and not even just their own.

"Pandas are very routine based," Lally said. "So they know if we are a minute early or a minute behind. And they will be waiting for us if we are a minute behind."

Pivotal to their diets — the bamboo pandas are known for — 50 to 70 pounds of it every day each in summer, 100 pounds in winter. Bei Bei, for example, had 12 pounds of bamboo in just one morning, and all of it is locally grown in Maryland, Virginia and D.C.

Before food though, it's time for a training session. The exercises get the pandas comfortable with hands-on interaction for checkups and medical procedures, even on days they aren't being performed.

"By asking him to move his paws up here, I can get a really good look at his claws and also the pads on his feet," Lally said as she examined Bei Bei.

The blood-sleeve draw is Bei Bei's favorite, getting him used to blood draws.

To communicate with the pandas, keepers use verbal cues along with hand signals, which helps prepare them for when the pandas are eventually sent to China.

"Because every cub we have will ultimately go to China, it's good that he knows hand signals so that there is no language barrier in using a language cue for a behavior," Lally said.

Keepers also get to know each panda's distinct and unique personality.

Tian Tian is the most laid back of the group.

"He's pretty easy going," she said. "He just kind of wants to eat and sleep and do his thing."

Mei Xiang, however, is more set in his ways, while Bei Bei acts more like a teenager.

"Bei Bei's very playful because he's still an adolescent," Lally said. "Mei Xiang is fiery, she's independent, she has her own agenda and that's great. And we have to bow down to her agenda."

After the pandas go into the yard, Lally continues her duties, such as cleaning up the pandas' indoor dens, making fruitsicles for their afternoon treat, giving talks to zoo visitors, and keeping meticulous track of each panda's activities with individual calendars.

"It's an array of a million different things," she said. "So I'm everything from the person who cleans up after the pandas to the person that feeds the pandas, observes them for medical things, and to make sure they're nice and their health is great."

The days can be long, but the rewards are black and white.

Lally grew up in southern Maryland and remembers visiting the National Zoo as a child. She started out at the zoo by volunteering and through an internship before eventually becoming a zoo keeper on the Asia Trail, beginning when Bei Bei was just six months old.

"Just watching [Bei Bei] grow up has been such a big treat to see what an amazing bear he's really turned into," Lally said.

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