Seeing Giant Pandas in the US

Beginning with a panda cub carried into the United States in the arms of fashion designer Ruth Harkness back in 1936, Americans have been fascinated by giant pandas. Here are 20 fun facts about these adorable mammals and where you can see them in the United States.

Where to see giant pandas in the US

During the Nixon Administration, Americans fawned over Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, the 18-month-old pandas gifted to the nation by the Chinese government.  A decade later, in part to ensure the endangered animals didn’t become extinct, the Chinese government evolved from giving pandas as gifts to loaning them for a substantial fee (think seven figures).  That means that a panda born in captivity anywhere in the world is technically a Chinese “citizen.”

Giant panda at Zoo Atlanta
One of the adult giant pandas at Zoo Atlanta

20 Fun Facts about Giant Pandas

1 – Native to China, giant pandas are considered a national treasure.

2 – In the wild, giant pandas once lived in lower elevations in China. Forest clearing, farming, and other development activities have driven them up into the mountains of central China.

3- Although giant pandas are a Chinese national treasure, they are endangered with only about 1,600 living in the wild.

4 – Pandas are endangered due to habitat loss and a very low birthrate. Fortunately for the world’s panda populations, the survival rate in captivity has grown from about 30% in the 1960s to about 90% today.

Giant panda at Zoo Atlanta
One of the adult giant pandas at Zoo Atlanta

5 – About 300 giant pandas live in zoos and breeding centers around the world.

6 – Giant pandas are the most expensive animals to keep in a zoo.  According to The New York Times, a panda costs five times more to keep than an elephant, the next most expensive animal in a zoo.

7 – A giant panda eats about 85 pounds of food a day including bamboo, apples, carrots, sweet potatoes, and special panda biscuits.

Panda eating bamboo at Zoo Atlanta
One of Zoo Atlanta’s giant pandas eating bamboo

8 – One reason pandas eat so much bamboo (up to 28 lbs per day) is that bamboo is low in nutrients.

9 – Giant pandas are the only bears known to eat a solely vegetarian diet.

10 – Like polar bears, giant pandas are loners. The only time that pandas seek a companion is during mating season, typically in the spring.

11 – About half of all panda pregnancies produce twins. In the wild, the mother will usually focus her milk supply and energy on the stronger of the twins, abandoning the other. In captivity, zookeepers work hard to help the mother care for two babies. But even with a team effort, sadly, it’s not uncommon to lose one of the twin newborns.

Pro Tip:  Take three minutes and watch this amazing time-lapse video that shows the first 100 days with  Mei Lun and Mei Huan, the twin, female pandas born at Zoo Atlanta in July 2013. It’s probably the cutest thing you’ll see this week!

Giant panda at the San Diego Zoo
One of the San Diego Zoo’s giant pandas surveys a pile of bamboo

12 – Panda cubs are completely blind at birth.

13 – They’re also born pink, developing white fur and black markings later.

14 – A panda mom is 900 times bigger than her baby. Learn more and see a great illustration at National Geographic.

15 – At 18 months, the cub is weaned and sent to live on its own.

Born in China movie by Disney
Photo by Disneynature

Pro Tip:  Check out Disney’s Born in China to experience a mom’s 18 months with her cub.

16 – While they are most definitely cute, giant pandas have large teeth and powerful jaws and can be just as dangerous as any other bear. Just watch one attack a bamboo stalk, and you will know what I mean!

17 – Unlike other bears, giant pandas don’t hibernate in the winter. Instead, when cold weather comes, they head down the mountain to warmer temperatures.

Panda twins at Zoo Atlanta
One of the panda twins at Zoo Atlanta gets ready for a nap with her tongue sticking out

18 – Around the world, giant pandas are also known as great pandas, parti-colored bears, bamboo bears and white bears.

19 – The giant panda’s scientific name, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, means “black and white cat-foot”.

20 – Pandas make sounds quite unlike other bears. Two of the most common sounds are called a chirp and a bleat, and they sound just like what you’d imagine — a chirp sounds a lot like a bird tweeting and a bleat sounds a lot like a goat or a sheep.


Where to See Giant Pandas in the US

At this time, giant pandas reside at just four zoos in the United States.  You can see them in Washington DC, San Diego, Atlanta, and Memphis.

National Zoo in Washington, DC

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, DC has housed giant pandas since Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived in 1972 as a gift from China. The zoo and Conservation Biology Institute are leaders in panda conservation. Get tips to prepare for your visit or watch their panda cam.

San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo was visited by two giant pandas for 100 days back in 1987, and has permanently housed giant pandas since 1996.  You can read about their current residents and watch them on panda cam.

Zoo Atlanta

Lun Lun and Yang Yang arrived at Zoo Atlanta as juveniles back in 1999.  Together they have produced five cubs, including female twins Mei Lun and Mei Huan, the first twin pandas to be born in the US since 1987.

Zoo Atlanta's giant panda twins Mei Lun and Mei Huan
What’s cuter than a panda? TWIN pandas! Giant panda twins Mei Lun and Mei Huan at Zoo Atlanta back in February 2016.

In November 2016, the twins said goodbye to Zoo Atlanta in order to return to China per the rules of the “panda diplomacy” program which states that any cub born in the United States must return to China before it turns four.  Apparently, Mei Lun and Mei Huan experienced culture shock, struggling to understand Chinese commands from their zookeepers and missing their beloved American panda biscuits.

Watch Zoo Atlanta’s giant pandas via panda cam.

Memphis Zoo

The Memphis Zoo added giant pandas in 2003, welcoming Ya Ya and Le Le after a four-year process. Ya Ya, the female panda, was hand-raised and really enjoys interacting with the zookeepers. The current agreement with the Chinese government ensures giant pandas will remain at the Memphis Zoo until at least 2023.


Sage’s Suggestion

After visiting both the San Diego Zoo and Zoo Atlanta in the past year, I preferred the panda experience at Zoo Atlanta. It was easier to spend more time watching the adorable creatures, in both their outdoor and indoor enclosures. Return visits to the pandas at the San Diego Zoo were quite a hike back through the entire trail, and we always plan multiple visits to our favorite animals during a trip to the zoo to catch them doing different things throughout the day.

I’m visiting the National Zoo in April and hope to get to Memphis in 2018, so I’ll add updates as I have them!

What about you?  Have you visited the giant pandas at the National, San Diego, Memphis, or Atlanta Zoo?  Share your experience in the comments section below.

Where to see giant pandas in the US


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