DUJIANGYAN, China – Failing eyesight, poor digestion, bad teeth, limbs no longer so limber: With captive giant pandas living longer than ever, the list of their physical and even emotional needs is growing.
China, the pandas' native home, is seeking to cater to those requirements with a special home for the old timers along with customized diets, exercise and other care aimed at improving their quality of life.
"Of course we spend more energy taking care of old pandas," said Xu Yalin, a panda keeper for 19 years at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda Dujiangyan Base in the southwestern province of Sichuan.
"Every day we need to interact with them closely and check their mental state," Xu said. "We also examine their feces, the shape of it and so on. We worry more about the old pandas than the juveniles."
Pandas are considered old after they turn 20. The current longevity champion, Basi, recently turned 37 and lives in Fujian province in southeast China.
Of the roughly 30 pandas at the base, Xu is responsible for three, all of them over 20 and starting to develop health issues from failing eyesight to poor digestion and teeth worn down by a lifetime of chomping bamboo.
Those who can no longer handle coarse bamboo shoots get the more tender leaves instead. They eat, sleep and do little else, to the delight of the visitors.
One of Xu's charges, a 24-year-old female named Qiao Yuan, gets fruits and smooth corn porridge rather than the wowotou bread made of corn and sorghum that younger pandas receive.
"Another panda, who was rescued from the wild, does not eat bamboo because of his bad teeth, so every day we chop bamboo leafs and mix them with pieces of the corn and sorghum bread, with carrots and apples," Xu said. "It's like a bamboo-flavored salad."
Xu visits Qiao Yuan first thing each morning to ensure she spent a good night. While feeding her a snack of carrots and apples, she performs several exercises aimed at checking Qiao Yuan's eyesight and teeth. She also has her stand up, to make her stretch her limbs.
Dinner is at 4 p.m. — more bamboo and porridge, which Qiao Yuan eagerly slurps up.
"Looking at Qiao Yuan's behavior at her age, you can't help but think about an old human being that has difficulty eating and walking," said Xu. "Taking care of an old panda is just like taking care of an old person."