Zoo Atlanta panda twins growing too big to handle

Zoo Atlanta's twin pandas, Xi Lun and Ya Lun are approaching an important milestone.

On Sept. 3 they will celebrate their first birthday.

In anticipation of that milestone, Zoo Atlanta's curator of mammals, Stephanie Braccini, invited The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to a behind-the-scenes visit with the bears.

We watched as the juveniles moved from one den to the next, sampled leaf-eater biscuits, sniffed some fresh bamboo and poked inquisitive noses toward the long lenses of photographer Bob Andres.

Ya Lun, the inquisitive sibling, sat quietly, munching a biscuit, while Xi Lun, usually the quieter one of the two, reached a paw out toward her visitors and leaned in for a closer look.

It will probably be the last time that a reporter is in the same room with the twins.

After the pandas reach a year in age, keepers and other humans will be excluded from their enclosures.

The zoo staff maintain that separation for two reasons. The first is safety.

Juvenile pandas look like fat stuffed animals, but are, in fact, wild creatures, with significant claws and the beginnings of a set of 44 teeth. Today the twins weigh about 50 pounds each, and they will eventually grow to 150 pounds or more. Soon no keeper will be able to pick them up and redirect their attention.

The other reason: The zoo doesn’t want to emphasize the human/animal bond.

When the cubs were infants, zoo personnel were required to gently switch them out at their mother’s breast, so that each was fed in turn, and both survived.

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Atlanta has, astonishingly, done this twice, with Xi Lun and Ya Lun, and with their older siblings, Mei Lun and Mei Huan, born four years ago. But despite that early intimate connection, caretakers try not to imprint an emotional connection with the animals.

The older set of twins traveled to China last November, where it is hoped they will be returned to the wild. The younger twins will follow the same path.

It makes it easier for them to go when they’re recognized as animals, not pets, said Braccini.

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Zoo patrons shouldn’t be encouraged to “anthropomorphosize” the bears, but to stay aware of the bears’ status as endangered creatures in the natural world.

That may be so, but seeing Ya Lun sitting on her round haunches, looking like a furry, round, pint-sized sumo wrestler, one would be hard-pressed to avoid that universal reaction, “awwww.”