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Q&A With 'Panda Lady' Lisa Stevens

photo Friday, June 4, 1999
Hsing-Hsing, the National Zoo's much-loved 28-year-old giant panda, is seriously ill. Hundreds of you have already sent us your e-mail get-well notes.

Lisa Stevens is the National Zoo's "Panda Lady." As assistant curator for pandas and primates, she is the top official in charge of the ailing panda's care. She answered questions about Hsing-Hsing's health, his habits, and the future of the zoo as a caretaker for disappearing species in general and pandas in particular.

She joined us from her office at the National Zoo. Below is the transcript of her talk. Lisa, welcome. We're so glad to have you joining us today. I think the obvious first question has to be: How is Hsing-Hsing doing today?

Lisa Stevens: Hsing-Hsing had a fantastic morning. He ate very well overnight, he got up and went outdoors for about an hour this morning, and ate very well this morning. He was seen on the CBS Morning News program, which doesn't happen very often these days. He's not often very visible for camera.

Richmond,VA: I can't be here at 1:00 becuase that is lunch time so I am writing you now! I'm from Bailey Bridge Middle School and I came to your 1:00 speaking Wednesday June 2,1999
and I didn't get to see Hsing-Hsing. I hope Hsing-Hsing is feeling better now! Do you think Hsing-Hsing can hold on til next year? I sure hope so becuase I sure would like to see him!

Lisa Stevens: Well, like you I certainly hope he can hold on for a year as well. And he's doing very well today and we'll just have to take each day as it comes.

Dallastown, PA: Our thoughts and our prayers are with Hsing-Hsing as he fights kidney disease. He is our very special friend. We applaud you and your staff for your care of Hsing-Hsing.

My question is what do you think our chances are of getting another pair of Pandas from China? Who will be going to China, and who will you be meeting with while in Beijing?

Lisa Stevens: The National Zoo has been involved in negotiations with our Chinese colleagues since our Fish & Wildlife service lifted its moratorium of the importation of giant pandas to the United States last year. These negotiations link our research and conservation programs for the panda and include discussions of the loan of a pair of pandas to the National Zoo. A delegation from the National Zoo, which includes me, Devra Kleiman and Ben Back (he's an associate director and she's a senior research scientist) will be traveling to Beijing to meet with the state forestry administration, the ministry of construction and the Chinese association of zoos (these are all organizations involved in either managing zoos or wild pandas.) Any loan of giant pandas to the United States must support sound, comprehensive research and conservation programs.

Oxon Hill, MD: I visit the zoo every year and always seem to miss seeing the Pandas. When is the best time to see the Pandas outside?

Lisa Stevens: Pandas are active early in the morning, when the temperature is below 80 degrees. Although Hsing-Hsing is currently not on a schedule, he most recently has been active early in the morning at 8 or 9 in the morning, but we can't promise that due to his health issues. In general, if we are to exhibit pandas in the future, it's best to see pandas at feeding time, which are posted, or on cool days, preferably outside our busy summer season.

Boston, MA : How long do Panda's usally live for? I love animals.
Is the Panda population growing? Does this panda have
a mate?

I wish you luck.

Lisa Stevens: Hsing-Hsing is the only panda at the National Zoo. He is at the end of his lifespan, at 28 years. Pandas in zoos can live into their late 20s or early 30s, although very few animals reach this age. Wild pandas probably do not survive out of their teens or early 20s.

We're unable to determine if the panda population is growing at this time. One of the goals of the conservation programs is to do a thorough census of wild pandas and a GIS (as in satellite) survey of the remaining forests.

Dallastown, PA: Lisa,

When we saw Hsing-Hsing earlier this week he seemed to have very little interest in food, and only ate sparingly. Has his appetite improved as a result of the new medications he is being given? And is he eating enough on his own to maintain his weight.

Danny & Mary

Lisa Stevens: I'm happy to say that Hsing-Hsing has a great appetite today. He is eating enough to maintain his weight today. The nature of kidney failure is that his condition and appetite might vary from day to day.

Aylett, Virginia: Are pandas docile animals by nature?

Lisa Stevens: Pandas are bears. And they have the potential to be very aggressive. Their appearance is deceiving. We saw a lot of differences in the personalities of Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling. Ling-Ling was rather aloof, and was more likely to show aggression toward her keepers. Hsing-Hsing is very outgoing and very easygoing. But that does not mean we ever go in the enclosure with him. A pandahug would be your last. Has Hsing-Hsing's mood changed since he became sick?

Lisa Stevens: Because of the need to give him veterinary treatment, he is now less trusting of his caregivers, especially the veterinarian. The veterinarian has to give him injections, and that's certainly something that is not pleasant. And he knows the veterinarian. And he may show annoyance when being treated. His behavior has changed in general in that because he doesn't feel well, his general attitude and interest in the keepers and many of the activities that he used to engage in has changed.

Laurel, MD: I have visited the pandas many times throughout my life. If our dear friend, hsing hsing, is in so much pain wouldn't the humane thing to do is put him to sleep and end his suffering. If you say the kidney infection is irreversable why cause this majestic animal more pain by trying to keep him alive for our own selfish purposes. Why not end his life so he will be happy and pain free. Yes, we will miss him but a burden will be off our chests knowing we let this beautiful creature leave us pain free.

Vicky H.

Lisa Stevens: As long as we can maintain his quality of life with minimal pain, we will continue to do so. We are certainly prepared to make a difficult decision, to euthanize him, if circumstances warrant it. At this time, we believe, based on his behavior and appetite, that he is comfortable.

edgewater ,florida: lisa i am a native washingtonian i spent much early time at the zoo. smokey and i where on first a first name basis since around 1953.i always thought pandas where not ursine or in the bear reporter cohn says in the book "zoo animals:a smithsonian guide":giant pandas are in the bear family.can you clear this up for me? thank you alan p s i was at the zoo the first week the pandas where presented to the public.

Lisa Stevens: It's nice to speak to a longtime bear fan. DNA research done in 1989 established that giant pandas belong in the bear family and the little red panda belongs in the raccoon family. DNA technology has enabled us to resolve taxanomic conflicts that in the past were based on physical evidence, as in skeletal evidence.

Alexandria VA: I have lived in the DC area all of my life and have known about the Pandas at the ZOO since I can remember. Are there plans in place for the next generation of Washingtonians to grown up with Pandas and wait in anticipation for offspring?

Lisa Stevens: The National Zoo has a longterm commitment to giant pandas. We are dedicated to their conservation and plan to continue our research programs.

Giant pandas are very popular in this city, as well as in the nation. I think they raise the level of concern not only for giant pandas but for all endangered species. They are sort of ambassadors for endangered species.

It's our hope to have another generation of pandas at the zoo.

falls church, VA: why is it so hard for pandas to breed, and why did all of ling-ling and hsing-hsing's cubs die?

Lisa Stevens: In regard to Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, the five cubs that they produced died either from failing to breathe or from infections contracted in utero or shortly after birth.

We believe Ling-Ling experienced immune suppression during pregnancy which prevented her body from protecting itself from normal bacteria that live on the skin and in the environment. Because documentation of medical issues in pandas varies tremendously in zoos in China, and access to veterinary care varies tremendously in China, we do not now how prevalent this problem is.

Giant pandas have bred in zoos. I believe we can breed them and have a healthy population. However, we must set aside politics, we must make sure that animals are paired. We must support the development of their social behavior by leaving cubs with their mothers and socializing animals with each other.

We cannot run a panda breeding program with one pair of animals in the United States. We must establish a North American breeding pool. The Chinese zoos are doing a much better job of coordinating their efforts.

York, PA: I know that San Diego already has a pair of Giant Pandas on a loan from China, Zoo Atlanta has been approved for a pair of Pandas, and now the National Zoo has applied for a pair of Pandas. I think this is great, but only if we are succesful in mating and in protecting this beautiful species.

With several zoos in the U.S. having Pandas, would there be cooperation between the zoos in the care of these animals, or would it be each zoo on its own trying to be the one that finally had a baby?

Why do you think the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City has been so succesful in breeding Pandas?

Lisa Stevens: Yes, North American zoos are coordinating their efforts. Our priority is to raise revenues (through the loan of animals to the U.S.) to support the conservation of wild pnadas. That's the priority.

Secondarily, we want to conduct research which will support a healthy population in the wild as well as in zoos. And of course we do want to breed them, so that we have a continued population.

Chapultepec had a very good management program from the beginning, which allowed their animals to be socialized, as well as familiar with each others' enclosures. In any breeding population, there will be succesful breeders and problem breeders. And Mexico City was fortunate to have successfully breeding animals.

Birmingham, Alabama: This is not a question, I just wanted to relay that I grew up in DC and always made it a point to see "Sing-Sing" and "Ling-Ling" -excuse the spelling errors- when we went to the zoo. I've explained to my daughters about Panda's and hope we will get to see her this summer during our visit.

Lisa Stevens: Hsing-Hsing (with two H's), our male panda, is now 28 years old, and I hope you'll get to see him. We hope that he continues to do as well as he's doing today.

Rockville, MD: I hope Hsing-Hsing gets better
soon and is with us a long
Are there
any plans to preserve Hsing-Hsing -and the memory of
the pandas- after he is no longer with us?

Lisa Stevens: We will maintain the panda interpretive display in the building and we will display any memorial items that are sent to him. We are currently displaying get-well wishes from his fans.

Giant pandas are as important to research after they die as during life. So he will receive a complete necropsy upon his death, information about his soft tissues will be studied and samples taken. His skin and skeleton will become a part of the Museum of Natural History collection.

Bethesda: Hi Lisa.

I've read that zoo representatives are traveling to China to negotiate for a new pair of pandas. I'm curious as to what we have to offer in exchange.

Lisa Stevens: We look forward to responding to any requests by our Chinese colleagues. Our focus is supporting conservation programs for wild pandas, research programs, and captive management and breeding efforts.

Knoxville TN: Have you ever considered placing one of the live zoo cams in the Panda area so those of us who don't get to the zoo often could enjoy the pandas "live".

Lisa Stevens: We're considering it. We have not done so in the past only becuase we don't have network access at the Panda House at this time. Perhaps in the future we'll be able to provide a link. Does Hsing-Hsing have a good rapport with you and his other care takers? Is he friendly?

Lisa Stevens: Yes, Hsing-Hsing knows me and he knows his caretakers. And in the days when he feels well, he is very responsive when we call him and will play little games with us. Through a mesh barrier, he likes to be tickled. He likes to play get-the-keeper's-foot. And he likes to be chased back and forth, on the other side of the fencing. And he always loved to come up for treats, like sweet potato and blueberry muffin. But he's not eating those things now. He's chosen to eat only bamboo leaves and shoots.

Washington DC: You mentioned earlier that the FWS has recently lifted its moratorium of the importation of giant pandas to the United States. Why did we have such a ban in place?

Lisa Stevens: In the 1980s there were many short-term loans of pandas to zoos. There was concern that these loans were not supporting conservation, and even interfered with zoo breeding programs, because the animals were temporarily removed from the programs and often were not permitted to be paired. Transactions involving endangered species must be compatible with sound conservation programs and revenue generated must support these efforts.

Vienna, Va.: In all honesty, how long do you think the Hsing-Hsing has to live? I mean, he's old, and has been through several serious illnesses. I know you have to take it day by day, but is it reasonable to give a timetable? Also, do Pandas mate for life? Do they mourn the loss of their mates like many other animals?

Lisa Stevens: Honestly answering, we have no idea how long he has. Chronic kidney failure with supportive care can continue for some time.

Pandas do not mate for life. They are solitary. Males and females come together during the brief, two- to three-day breeding season, once a year. That actually is another reason why they're not as easy to breed, becuase you only have one chance a year, by the way.

When Ling-Ling died, Hsing looked for her and called for her for about a month. However, his activity and appetite were not affected.

Arlington, VA: Hi! You mentioned that "any loan of giant pandas to the United States must support sound, comprehensive research and conservation programs." What kind of research has the National Zoo done with Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling? What other types of research is the zoo interested in?

Thank you.

Lisa Stevens: Over the past 27 years, we conducted research on panda genetics, reproductive biology, semen collection and preservation, vocalization and medecine. We also hosted and participated in international conferences and provided training to our Chinese colleagues.

Our future interests include these subjects, but expand to support research in surveying and censusing wild pandas and habitat issues, and supporting the efforts to create a self-sustaining zoo breeding program both in China and the U.S.

McLean, VA: I have lived in McLean for many years and have always made a point of going to the zoo at least 2 - 3 times a year.

Is there a way to extract healthy sperm from Hsing-Hsing in order to preserve his line? Since most of his life he has seemed to be a very healthy Panda, would it be beneficial to pass his specific genes on?

Lisa Stevens: We have collected Hsing's semen over the years. You may recall we needed to castrate him in '97 because of a testicular tumor. Most of the semen we had stored from him was sent to the Mexico City and Tokyo zoos for artificial insemination. Sadly, we believe to only have about enough semen for one insemination left in storage. We would love to perpetuate his genes. He is a wonderful animal. However, we only have one shot left.

Washington, D.C.: Since Hsing-Hsing is considered a celebrity compared to the other animals at the zoo, will there be a memorial service for him when the time comes? Also, what precautions are being taken to keep the ailing Hsing-Hsing comfortable?

Lisa Stevens: No, we do not plan to have a memorial service, although we will display memorial items in the Panda House. Hsing-Hsing is being kept comfortable by giving him daily anti-inflammatory medication for arthritis and antacid to prevent nausea and gastric upset and an antibiotic to prevent infection. If needed, we have used and will use fluid therapy, under anesthesia, to support kidney function.

New York, NY: Are there other Pandas in the U.S. at this time? And has there ever been a successful cub born in the U.S.? Is the breeding rate in zoos high in China?

Lisa Stevens: The breeding rate in zoos in China is higher. They have 125 animals in their gene pool. However, very few of those animals have bred. Probably only 20 percent of the population is breeding. So one of our tasks is to recruit more animals into the breeding program.

There has never been a surviving cub in the U.S. Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing produced five cubs in four pregnancies, all by natural breeding, the longest-lived cub only lived four days.

There is a pair of giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo. Natural breeding has failed, and the zoo has attempted artificial insemination the past two years, without success. However, we await the results for this year.

Falls Church, Virginia: As it stands, do the chances look favorable for China to lend a baby panda to the U.S.? And do they only lend pairs, or would they lend one panda? Especially since the National Zoo does not have private funds.

Lisa Stevens: We would not accept a single giant panda, because it would not support our goals of establishing a self-sustaining zoo breeding program. It is difficult to project what will happen in terms of giant pandas being loaned to the National Zoo. The National Zoo will continue its commitment to giant panda conservation regardless.

The National Zoo will be dependent on private as well as public funds to bring pandas to the zoo. We have a panda conservation fund for which we solicit donations. As a federal zoo, that is, free to the visitor, we do not have access to a source of revenue that's available to other zoos in this country, so we will definitely be dependent on fund-raising efforts in the private and corporate sectors.

Oakland, CA: Hi Lisa,

So glad to hear Hsing-Hsing is feeling better!

Do you suppose the recent tensions between the US and China -over the spy scandal and the bombing of the Chinese embassy- will make it more difficult for the National Zoo to reach agreement with China over the acquisition of a new panda pair? I understand Jiang Zemin has final authority over this matter.

Lisa Stevens: Politics are outside my realm, thankfully. And I would like to think that giant pandas and the global conservation issues that they symbolize will be a bridge between our nations. Since you and others at the zoo have a personal relationship with Hsing-Hsing, has his illness been particularly hard on you emotionally?

Lisa Stevens: It's been very difficult. I find that at any moment, I can feel tears welling for him. He is a very special animal, and it is very difficult for us, at this time. And I know that many people feel the same way. Just a few minutes left with our guest, Lisa Stevens.

Falls church,Va: Can we clone panda so to save panda in America and worldwide?

Lisa Stevens: I believe that cloning is contrary to establishing a naturally breeding, genetically diverse and healthy giant panda population. I believe the resources that would need to be invested in cloning could be better utilized in front-line conservation efforts to protect wild pandas in their habitat.

Dallastown, PA: I know this is a tough question, but what are your favorite moments from your time as in charge of Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling?

Lisa Stevens: One of my favorite times was a morning in the fall of '91, it was a beautiful, sunny fall day, and Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing spent time playing together on their outdoor furniture. They didn't make a sound. Their breath could be seen in the air. And they tumbled and rolled and paw-swatted each other gently. More recently, I have enjoyed watching Hsing-Hsing tumble and toboggan on a snowy hillside in his exhibit. I will also remember how good Hsing-Hsing made carrots and cooked sweet potatoes look while chewing them.

Washington, DC: A follow up to a previous answer....How do we contribute to the panda conservation fund? Or to the zoo in general?

Lisa Stevens: The Panda Conservation Fund is administered by Friends of the National Zoo. It can be reached by calling 202-673-4613 or by going to their website, which is Thank you very much Lisa. It's been great talking to you this past hour.

© Copyright 1999 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive

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