An Asian Tale

Pet Tales

by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Last October, along with several veterinary colleagues and their spouses, I attended the World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress held on JeJu Island, South Korea. It was an exciting and memorable occasion. We took the opportunity, when we were in the neighbourhood, to extend our journey with a visit to China. It was an amazing experience.

In Beijing, we met with some members of our profession in the offices of the Chinese Veterinary Association. We learned that small animal veterinary medicine is becoming ever more available to the pets in this rapidly developing country. It's nice to see that in China, where my overwhelming memory is of people - China has 1.3 billion people - and the incredible density of the human population, animals still are important.

While in China, however, the main focus of our visit was to be a tourist. We were awed by the skyscrapers of Shanghai, impressed with Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in Beijing and thrilled to walk along the Great Wall. In Xian, to see row upon row of Terra Cotta Warriors, now unearthed, rising silently and standing within an amphi-theatre large enough to hold several football fields, is a sight to behold. After these lessons in modern architecture and history, cruising along the Li River from Guilan, or on the Yangtze River through the Three Gorges, offers a whole new perspective on this emerging giant of a nation. At least for me, though, one of the most exciting events in China resulted from an animal visit. Yes, among all the other wonders of China, it was the chance to get up close and personal with a giant panda that ranks very high on my list of memories.

They must be one of the most recognizable animals in the world. Their white body with black legs, black shoulder girdle and black ears and eye patches makes no mistaking who they are. Panda bear just seems to instantly imply friendly, cute and cuddly. However, they definitely are rather a Chinese specialty. In fact, in recent years, they seem almost to have replaced the dragon as a national emblem for China. They are native to central-western and south western China. Today, in the wild, they are only found in a few mountain ranges in central China. As a result of farming, deforestation and habitat loss for other reasons, it has had to move out of the lowland areas where it once lived. The panda's diet is 99% bamboo, although they will occasionally eat other grasses and even small amounts of meat.

The panda is an endangered species. A recent report showed 239 pandas living in captivity inside China and another 27 outside the country. At present, estimates for the wild population range between 1-2000 pandas.

We travelled to Chengdu to see pandas. Located over 1500 kilometers from Beijing, with a population of 11 million people, it is the capital of Sichuan province in south-west China. It is also where the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, more simply known as the Chengdu Panda Base, is located. It is a non-profit research and breeding facility for pandas and certain other animals. It was founded in 1987 and started with 6 giant pandas that were rescued from the wild. It has partnered with zoos, scientific research centers, breeding institutions and conservation groups around the world. Its stated goal is to "be a world-class research facility, conservation and education center and international educational tourism destination." Judging from the appearance of the facility we visited and the people and the pandas we encountered, they  certainly seem to be achieving their aspirations. We saw pandas ranging in age from a few weeks old to mature adults. In their spacious surroundings, they appeared relaxed, healthy and well-fed. Juveniles were pre-occupied with playing with one another, quite oblivious to the crowd of people thrilled to be spectators at their games. Also, for each of us, a highlight of our visit to China took place at this location. Here at the Panda Base we had the chance to be photographed sitting beside Yuan Zhou, a 14 month old male panda. Nowhere else in the world could this have happened. In an ancient land with a billion plus population of people, it was wonderful to see new dedication and new initiatives to find a more secure place for a remarkable resident in the world we share.Barry Burtis is a local companion animal veterinarian. Past Pet Tales can be found at