John Kelly's Washington

Bamboo-Loving Giant Pandas Can Warp a Zoo Nutritionist's Worldview

The National Zoo's Regina Bakely (left), Mike Maslanka and Bernard Graham pause from their bamboo-harvesting duties at a site near Intercounty Connector construction in Montgomery County. The bamboo they cut will feed the zoo's giant pandas and other species.
The National Zoo's Regina Bakely (left), Mike Maslanka and Bernard Graham pause from their bamboo-harvesting duties at a site near Intercounty Connector construction in Montgomery County. The bamboo they cut will feed the zoo's giant pandas and other species. (John Kelly -- The Washington Post)

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By John Kelly
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

From the moment he wakes up in the morning until the moment he falls asleep at night, Mike Maslanka has one thing on his mind: bamboo.

Bamboo, bamboo, bamboo bamboobamboobamboobam.

This is what happens when you are responsible for making sure the three most famous animals in Washington -- Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and Tai Shan, the National Zoo's giant pandas -- don't starve. As the zoo's senior animal nutritionist, Mike is responsible for feeding all 2,000 animals at the zoo, but, let's face it, the pandas are the stars. Since bamboo is pretty much all a panda eats -- about 60 pounds of the stuff each day, every day -- bamboo has become Mike's obsession.

And so yesterday morning Mike, a wiry 37-year-old, met a crew from the zoo's Bamboo Procurement Team in a bamboo grove in Montgomery County. Three days a week, sometimes more, they cut bamboo. Letters stuck on the front of the crew's truck said it all: "The bamboo never stops."

Last year, for reasons that weren't entirely clear at first, the stands of bamboo the zoo maintains at its Front Royal, Va., conservation center stopped growing. Desperate, the zoo did something it had never done before: put out a call for help.

Hundreds of people responded, including the contractor building the Intercounty Connector. Several large stands were found along the route, including this one near Layhill Road. Lots of people may hate the ICC, but it's putting bamboo on the table.

Armed with loppers and wearing hard hats, Mike and his crew, Bernard Graham and Regina Bakely, got down to business. As the morning sun slanted through the celadon grove, there was the sound of harvest: a squeak, then a snap as loppers cut through each woody stem, a hollow clacking as the stalks were stacked on the ground, a leafy rustle as they were bundled on the back of the truck. Everyone trod carefully, since pointy bamboo stumps stuck out of the ground like Viet Cong punji sticks.

"It's a great workout," joked Regina, 23. She started working for the zoo in November. Bernard, 59, has worked there for 33 years. He was nursing a cut lip. "Sometimes it can spring back and smack you in the face," he said.

The zoo harvests from several stands in the area, including one near the river in Fort Washington where the stalks grow 50 feet high and are as big around as a man's arm. "You go into the center of it, you look up, and it's quiet," Bernard said.

A giant panda's diet is 98 percent bamboo. Those frozen fruit treats they eat on their birthdays? Strictly PR. What pandas crave is bamboo. They strip the leaves and eat them. In cooler months, they gnaw on the woody stem, or culm.

Mike has degrees in wildlife science and nutritional physiology, but he's had to become a botanist, too. Zoo experts used to think that they could cut 75 percent of a grove, leaving 25 percent to grow back with fresh young shoots. Now it looks like they had it backward. It's better to cut just 25 percent. The zoo's groves are slowly coming back.

But Mike still needs bamboo, and so he checks out donor sites. Sunday night, he got a call at home from a man in Northern Virginia who was clearing land for a construction project. He wanted the bamboo gone the next day.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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