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“Dying Pandas” was how giant pandas YaYa & LeLe in Memphis Zoo were described when a horrified panda fan saw how skinny and malnourished they looked back in 2020.  About 3 years ago, she brought together a group of concerned panda fans to fight for better conditions for them and for their return to China. That was how Panda Voices was born.

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Giant panda LeLe in January 2023 just days before his tragic death. Source: Extracted from the Memphis Zoo Panda cam.

On 3rd February 2023, “dying pandas” became a tragic reality. Memphis Zoo announced that 24-year-old giant panda LeLe had died on 1st February 2023.  The announcement came 2 days after he passed. Panda fans and animal activists globally had seen how weak LeLe was in recent weeks.  He was barely eating and it’s a known fact that pandas spend 10-16 hours a day eating. He collapsed while horrified fans watched on cam.  Fans tried to contact Memphis Zoo only to be brushed off as usual.

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Giant panda YaYa at the Memphis Zoo. Source: Panda Voices

Memphis Zoo held a press conference on 3rd February and when asked about LeLe’s recent health, they said: “We saw no indication that would lead us to believe there is anything wrong with LeLe”. When journalists asked about the concerns raised by Panda Voices and In Defense of Animals about LeLe’s recent lack of appetite, weakness and collapse, they shared that LeLe “was just being silly”, “he acts dramatically”, “he was simply lying down on that video” or “he was always making people laugh”. The president of the zoo also added “(Activist groups) are taking this opportunity to continue to tell untruths. That’s unfortunate”. 

What is the Truth?

The truth is…LeLe died. And Memphis Zoo needs to be held accountable for LeLe dying on their watch.

Regular visitors to the zoo or those who watch the panda cam every day will tell you that it is clear that LeLe died of neglect and lack of care in Memphis Zoo.  LeLe & YaYa had to frequently beg for food on a daily basis; even then, they mostly appeared to be ignored. 

Memphis Zoo Chose To Ignore Concerns About Lele’s Health

If one refers to these videos on 15 January 202325 January 2023, and on the last day of his life on 31 January 2023, one can clearly see that LeLe was very weak, found nothing palatable around him, fell to the floor and slept. Despite being terribly weak, he still had the will to live and tried to beg for food.  At one point, he struggled to climb the stone and stood there, trying his best to beg for food as he usually did, but he failed. He was already extremely weak at that time. He needed nutrition, energy and soft food for him to gain strength. But he got nothing! Memphis Zoo let him down! LeLe died! His body was only discovered the next morning! If the zoo were really watching their cams (as they claimed in the press conference that the pandas are always being monitored either physically or by cam), they would have seen several indications that LeLe was unwell.

So when Memphis Zoo said there was no indication there was anything wrong with LeLe, it was either they really did not notice, which is in itself terrifying, given that they are supposed to oversee the health of the animals in their charge, or they were not being transparent. If they really hadn’t noticed LeLe’s health deteriorating, this is a MAJOR cause for concern.  This means that they are so used to seeing the pandas being inactive and begging for food that it has become a norm.

Looking at the above clip from 25 January 2023, one can clearly see that LeLe was already unwell. In fact, fans had observed his health deteriorating since mid-January. But the zoo claims that there was no indication there was anything wrong!

Given the evidence, it strongly suggests that LeLe’s death was caused by the zoo’s neglect. Memphis Zoo appears to be so used to the pandas being passive and begging for food every day that even LeLe’s dangerous health symptoms appeared normal to them. 

Usually, when pandas have no interest in food for several days and sleep excessively, the vets would get involved as it might be an indication that something was wrong. But Memphis Zoo appears to have taken the abnormal as normal.  Did the zoo perform a thorough medical check for LeLe after fans alerted the zoo that LeLe had fallen many times? Did the zoo perform regular medical checks on both YaYa and LeLe? 

LeLe was forced to beg for food even on the very last day of his life!  It strongly suggests that Memphis Zoo’s neglect and unprofessional conduct led to LeLe’s early demise just months before he was due to fly back to China!

Perhaps on that fateful day, LeLe finally decided he had had enough and he chose to leave this suffering behind.  Perhaps he wanted to protect YaYa, who seems more ill than he does, and to ensure that the world finally gives YaYa and the other animals in the zoo the attention they so desperately need so that positive action can be taken to save them.

Evidence collected clearly points to Memphis Zoo’s lack of transparency.  The zoo has dismissed panda fans’ concerns for YaYa and LeLe over the last 3 years.  Panda Voices and In Defense of Animals tried to set up meetings with the zoo to see how we can help but they turned a deaf ear to our requests.  

Why Were Both Pandas In Memphis Zoo So Weak and Thin?

One of Memphis Zoo’s favorite phrases is that the pandas are elderly. Let us be clear. LeLe died at the age of 24. His mother XinXing, was the longest-living panda in captivity.  She passed at the age of 38 in 2020.  His mother in China, lived a good 14 years older than poor LeLe in Memphis Zoo! In addition to that, ironically YaYa and LeLe are the younger panda couple in the USA’s zoos and “coincidentally” the ones who have health problems.

On 4th February 2023, one day after Memphis Zoo had announced LeLe’s passing, YaYa was, once again, begging for food over and over again.  Unfortunately, this is a daily affair. However, in the press conference, the Zoo claims that YaYa and LeLe are the most spoiled animals in the world. This is in stark contrast to all observations made.

According to the husbandry standard issued by the National Forestry and Grassland Administration (NFGA) in China, giant pandas should be provided a nutritious balanced diet at different ages, which must include five types of food: 

  1. coarse diets, such as bamboo and panda cakes.
  2. refined diets, such as panda cakes made with corn flour, rice flour, etc and protein feed, such as the vegetable protein in bamboo shoots and red dates, and eggs and milk, which are the prime sources of animal protein.
  3. vegetables and fruits, such as apples and carrots.
  4. mineral supplements, which can be added to the mixed ingredients of panda cakes.
  5. microelement and vitamins, which can be added to pandas’ diets to meet the needs of pandas’ growth, development and reproduction.
  6. It also emphasizes the importance of the scientific proportioning of these diets on pandas’ health and nutrition.

Based on our observations, both pandas’ daily diet was very limited and lacking in nutrition as the bamboo provided to the pandas was low in quality and quantity.  There was a lack of diversity in the snacks provided as well and, therefore, a total contrast to the husbandry recommendations by the NFGA in China. 

It is important to note that before LeLe’s increased signs of physical deterioration in mid-January, thousands of panda fans all over the world, animal organizations like Panda Voices and In Defense of Animals and the Oscar-winning singer Billie Eilish have, for years, begged for improved care for the giant pandas at the Memphis Zoo and their immediate return to China. Concerns were raised regarding the pandas underweight, LeLe’s broken teeth, YaYa’s parasite infection, the low quality and small quantity of the zoo’s bamboo, the lack of a variety of supplement food and the obvious signs of stereotypical behaviors both pandas often show. 

In addition to the questionable quality of the bamboo provided for YaYa and LeLe, which both animals often refuse to eat, Memphis Zoo frequently stated in their videos that they have plenty of bamboo on their farm.  At the same time, they request bamboo donation from the local citizens to feed YaYa and LeLe. Relying on local bamboo donations is not safe for the pandas, nor does it guarantee the continuous supply needed for them. 

Memphis Zoo used to send bamboo from their farm to Toronto Zoo in Canada to feed their former pandas, DaMao and Ershun.  However, it seems that the giant pandas in Toronto Zoo did not like the bamboo from Memphis either, as stated in an article published by Meagan Campbell on the Canadian media: “Keepers deduced she (ErShun) was unsettled by the bamboo, which came from Memphis, and in the case of Da Mao, the keepers feel the bamboo isn’t very palatable for him more often than it is tasty. Fortunately, the zoo soon received bamboo from Cincinnati—a preferred food item.”  Clearly, it is this unpalatable bamboo that LeLe and YaYa need to eat every day.

LeLe had broken teeth which made it harder for him to eat hard bamboo. In China, keepers provide elderly pandas mashed bamboo with fruits and vegetables so that it’s softer and easier for them to eat and digest, plus they get nutrients from the diverse food and snacks.  

Giant pandas tend to be very particular about their food as they have a good sense of smell and only eat selective types of fresh bamboo, refusing dry or wilted leaves and discolored stalks. The bamboo given to YaYa and LeLe at Memphis Zoo often looks yellow and dry.  Consequently, it is common to see them refusing to eat it and sadly beg for food every day. 

Moreover, supplement food like fruits, vegetables, and panda cakes are rarely seen given to them. In one of its statements, the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens (CAZG) suggested that Memphis Zoo offer both pandas bamboo shoots every day to improve their nutrition and help them gain weight.  Again, there is no evidence that this suggestion was implemented.

How does anyone, human or animal alike, survive year after year without proper food and nutrition? It is a wonder LeLe lasted as long as he did, having to beg for food every day! Nevertheless, we hoped the unthinkable would not happen but it did! LeLe died. BUT, with your help, we hope we can save YaYa.

How You Can Help

We do not want the female panda YaYa to meet the same tragic end as LeLe.  Please do not let LeLe die in vain. We need to get YaYa out of Memphis Zoo at once.  And to achieve that, YaYa needs to be fit enough to take the long flight back to China.  Her diet and therefore nutrition to improve her health and strength is of utmost priority. The contract with Memphis Zoo ends in April 2023 and they will return to China then. Unfortunately, LeLe could not take the suffering any longer. We’re afraid YaYa might not be able to either.

You can help by : 

  1. Calling or going in person to Memphis Zoo to pressure them to feed YaYa more often with more quality bamboo, giving her the amount that she needs when she needs and a more variety of snacks like panda cakes, apples, pears, bamboo shoots daily.
  2. Calling or going in person to speak to Memphis Zoo and get them to reveal LeLe’s medical records and the cause of death, and to immediately release the necessary documentation needed to allow the Chinese experts to fly to the USA.
  3. Calling or going in person to the Chinese Embassy in the USA to:
  4. encourage them to push Memphis Zoo to improve YaYa’s care and diet, especially because she needs to be fit to fly to China and take her back to China immediately, where she can get the specialized care and treatment she desperately needs. 
  5. perform a thorough investigation into LeLe’s death and take action against Memphis Zoo for their neglect resulting in LeLe’s early demise.
  6. NEVER send pandas to Memphis Zoo again. The zoo has proven their incompetence and indifference to caring for the pandas all too clearly.

Our dear precious LeLe, we love you forever. We will continue our fight for YaYa, so that your death is not in vain.

“We cry for the life you lived, and the one you didn’t”. Author Unknown.

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