NPR logo The Pandas' Secret

David Gilkey

The Pandas' Secret

Video by David Gilkey, NPR
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I really don't smile that much. It's not that I am unhappy or depressed. It's just not in my nature. I tend to take life a little seriously.

But, as part of my coverage for NPR in China, I visited the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and Director Zhang Zhihe. He's a gentle man who speaks about the giant pandas as if they were his own family. At the end of our time together, I asked him why he thought the giant panda bears are so popular. A simple answer from the director: "Because they make you smile!"

I fully agree. I edited this piece for the blog smiling and laughing out loud the whole time. This footage is a preview of a full report with Melissa Block that will air in May. Enjoy.

—David Gilkey



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Those are such amazing animals. Took our son to see them in Washington, DC at the National Zoo. Cool stuff

Sent by Jeff Schmitz | 10:41 AM | 4-22-2008

I've always wanted to know what their fur feels like. Are they soft like a bunny when young and then grow a coarser coat?

Sent by Patty D | 12:22 PM | 4-22-2008

Beautiful Animals. Such a Joy to watch them...

Sent by David Carlin | 12:25 PM | 4-22-2008

I know what I want my daughter to do when she grows up -- work with pandas. That way when I visit her, I'll be able to hug one. Their squeaks crack me up.

Sent by Shelley Cornia | 12:58 PM | 4-22-2008

Part of their appeal might be the illusion of big eyes: apparently humans are hardwired to be attracted to big eyes because babies' eyes take up a larger proportion of that face than adults' eyes.

Sent by m | 12:59 PM | 4-22-2008

There is nothing better than watching these endearing animals and enjoying the
irresistible urge to laugh. they always bring out the best and most joyous feelings for life in me.

Sent by April Baranoff | 2:11 PM | 4-22-2008

It's a shame gorillas aren't as endearing as pandas. Then, gorillas wouldn't be virtually extinct.

Sent by Wendy | 3:10 PM | 4-22-2008

I saw the baby panda in Washington, DC when they gave out 10-minute viewing tickets. We watched behind the glass, and when he did something - ANYthing, like stand or fall - we screamed like he was a rock star.

Sent by Kong Laoshi | 3:26 PM | 4-22-2008

This is the best footage of Panda bears I've ever watched. Thank you, David, for sharing this with us.

Sent by Yong | 7:26 PM | 4-22-2008

a similar video:

cute baby panda trying hard to climb a one-step stair

Sent by Bingster | 8:00 PM | 4-22-2008

Do they make panda coats?

Sent by Ben | 10:38 PM | 4-22-2008

Pandas are big, but clumsy. It's like a baby; it needs care and love. Its eyes, surrounded by black circles, call for your sympathy. That's why pandas are so cute.

Sent by Song Qiuying | 11:15 PM | 4-22-2008

The baby pandas certainly put a smile on my face!

Sent by Cecilia | 1:26 AM | 4-23-2008

I took my son to see my mother in San Diego last year. While there, we predictably went to the zoo. Our favorite part was the panda exibit.

"They are like teddy bears cats," my son said.

How can you not love them? They really do just make you smile and feel that all is well in the world.

Sent by Jenelle Schmitz-Johnson | 7:46 AM | 4-23-2008

I've had the worst couple days. That is the first time I've really smiled. Makes me wish we were that adorably simple.

Sent by G | 8:38 AM | 4-23-2008

Wonderful video!

I've always wondered what kind of human could harm them. As I was enjoying the Pandas I had the same thoughts as Wendy: if all animals met our criteria for adorable. perhaps they wouldn't be on their way to extinction.

Sent by nanci | 10:07 AM | 4-23-2008

I love pandas!

They are so mystical and the energy around them is strong enough to bring the world together. I have a very large collection of panda-related items, from eggs to socks to fireworks. I have visited them as often as 4-5 times a year at the National Zoo in washington, D.C.

I'm saving money so my granddaughter and I can go volunteer at the Panda Reserve near Chengdu.

Sent by Kathie d. Townsend | 12:36 PM | 4-23-2008

This is the most enjoyable video I have ever seen. I couldn't help but smile and feel good.

Sent by john chin | 1:22 PM | 4-23-2008

This is great. I've never seen a real panda in front of me though I'm from China! How can they be so cute???

Sent by Wei Xie | 6:08 PM | 4-23-2008

Ben wrote: "Do they make panda coats?"

I'm a little surprised no one has commented on this.

Sent by Rick Shatz | 6:29 AM | 4-24-2008

I never knew they made that sound! So cute. Thank you.

Sent by Emily | 9:54 AM | 4-24-2008

Ben wrote: "Do they make panda coats?"

I think you have watched too many negative amd distorted news media reports about China. Go visit China yourself and you will know.

Sent by Wood Forest | 11:04 AM | 4-24-2008

Wendy, pandas, too, are virtually extinct! They're more endangered than gorillas! Being cute doesn't prevent habitat destruction!

Sent by Sharon Wilson | 1:29 PM | 4-24-2008

Rick, I think others ignored Ben's idiotic comment because it was beneath notice.

Sent by Sarah | 1:32 PM | 4-24-2008

Wendy: Pandas are virtually extinct, too, didn't you know?

Sent by Cindy | 4:17 PM | 4-24-2008

We're supposed to share the earth with all creatures. Unfortunately, one-by-one we have been driving them to extinction. I hate to think of a world with only humans; it would be a terrible place to live.

Sent by Jian | 4:54 PM | 4-24-2008

It's a treat to sneak a peek of the Reserve staff taking care of these playful pandas!

Sent by Jennifer | 4:58 PM | 4-24-2008

My two-year-old daughter is now obsessed with this video.

Sent by Gina | 5:06 PM | 4-24-2008

Its disconcerting that:

1) the pandas have so much contact with humans.

2) all the female staff are in full scrubs, but all the male staff goes around without them. Also, the video shows a staff member wearing a mask, but her nose was no longer in it. It gives the impression that all this is for show.

I believe in and support biodiversity, and wildlife and habitat preservation. As adorable as this seems, the pandas are being housed in labs and treated like domesticated animals. Will this help their ability to self sustainability? Will there be natural environments left for them to be wild again?

Sent by Jo | 5:38 PM | 4-24-2008

I got to visit the Chengdu Panda Reserve while I lived in China. Definitely recommended for all you panda lovers. For $50 you can touch a panda and have your picture taken. To answer an earlier question, their coat is much coarser than you'd expect.

Sent by Michael Perry | 6:49 PM | 4-24-2008

Ben asks, "Do they make panda coats?"

Not commercially, but you can get a raccoon coat, or at least a raccoon cap like Davy Crockett wore at the Alamo. Racoons are black and white, so that's a pretty close match.

Sent by Mike | 6:57 PM | 4-24-2008

Totally adorable.

Sent by Iris Ayala | 9:21 PM | 4-24-2008

Pandas make you smile because, for lack of better words, they are always so goofy.

Sent by Dennis Yiu | 11:13 PM | 4-24-2008

Jo, I can share what I know about pandas and panda bases.

I've been to the Chengdu Panda Base myself. There are two major panda bases in Sichuan, one in Chengdu and another in Wolong. The Wolong base is located in natural habitat in a remote rural region. They have been working on building a wild panda population in the natural habitat by training and releasing pandas born in the base. The researchers have been doing a great job in both bases.

The baby boom last year at the Chengdu base is a piece of solid evidence.

Sent by Jie Wu | 11:32 PM | 4-24-2008

Hey Jo, you're right in what you've said about pandas being domesticated.

But look, these pandas could be considered ambassadors of their species. Without them, would humans have respect for their wild cousins and care about protecting their natural habitat? These pandas will never see the wild, but they are loved and cared for very much, and they encourage the people who have the capacity to make a difference in the well being of their species. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!

Sent by Heather | 12:22 AM | 4-25-2008

I enjoyed your panda video many times.

Sent by yumi | 2:46 AM | 4-25-2008

I had the same cozy feelings after watching the video for the first time. I mean, how can anyone not feel warm and fuzzy about those cute teddy bear cats?

However, I went back to view the video again with a sense of apprehension after reading all of the comments (especiallyJo's), and I couldn't help but wonder why did it seem like the female researcher was shoving or pushing one of the pandas into the darkness of a cave at the end of the video?

Sent by Helen | 2:53 AM | 4-25-2008


You'd better see the movie "Planet of the Apes", the reality is so cruel.

Sent by Jason | 4:45 AM | 4-25-2008

You made my day!

Sent by sara | 9:04 AM | 4-25-2008

This is just great. I am grinning ear to ear!

Sent by Linnea Covington | 9:16 AM | 4-25-2008

To Mike and Ben,

You both are disgusting. Killing animals for their fur is one of the most inhumane and barabaric acts humans commit against animals. You both should be ashamed.

Sent by Chris | 11:08 AM | 4-25-2008

Pandas have touched my heart for many years now, and they do put worldwide smiles on our faces. My biggest dream is to volunteer my time at a panda reserve so I, too, can get up close and personal.

I have a beautiful tattoo of two baby pandas, it represents my two sons and all the smiles both have given me over the years!

Sent by Lori | 12:30 PM | 4-25-2008

Helen, I was also a bit surprised by the end of the footage. But I think you can trust they are in good hands. because I saw that to be the case in person; pandas live a happy, as if they were princes and princesses.

Baby pandas play with and shove each other a lot. So a little shoving won't do them any harm. They are our national treasure. So feel relieved and enjoy the video.

Sent by Jie Wu | 2:22 PM | 4-25-2008

This was so so so cute! We love pandas!

Sent by Anna and Julia | 8:54 PM | 4-25-2008

So adorable! Pandas are such wonderful critters.

Sent by Kim | 9:51 PM | 4-25-2008

So cute. I love them.

Sent by why bother | 10:24 PM | 4-25-2008

Pandas are the just about the stupidest mammals. I find them repulsive.

Sent by zippy | 11:01 PM | 4-25-2008

One of your users wrote:

"Its disconcerting that:

1) the pandas have so much contact with humans.

2) all the female staff are in full scrubs, but all the male staff goes around without them. Also, the video shows a staff member wearing a mask, but her nose was no longer in it. It gives the impression that all this is for show.

Will this help their ability to self sustainability? Will there be natural environments left for them to be wild again? "

Actually in answer to your questions...

1. This is a breeding cente.r So it isn't possible to avoid human interaction. Also, such animals need some care and affection, not only their basic needs. It is indeed very difficult to find the balance between avoiding all human interaction with them and interacting too much. This is also quite difficult to assess from a one-and-a-half-minute clip.

2. The staff that interacts with the pandas are the ones in full scrubs. It's not connected to gender. And regarding the one person who's mask who isn't covering her nose: from personal experience working with sea lions in California, I have to say that masks are a pain. We sometimes did pull them down to breathe better and sometimes they nearly fell off our faces. This most especially when doing difficult physical work. So, I don't think it was meant for show here.

And your last question is very valid.

But we do know that there are pandas in the wild now so their natural habitat still exists. And most centers like these, whose goal is to release the animals, try very hard to teach the animals survival skills without "domesticating" them. It's a long hard and difficult program; one that's incredibly rewarding.

I hope this helps to answer some of your questions.

If you have more questions, please feel free to email me at:

Personally, I'm eagerly waiting for the rest of this segment in May.

Sent by Neela Jayaraman | 6:19 AM | 4-26-2008

Michael Perry's comment makes me sad.

A panda shouldn't be treated as an object. But people are greedy and if they can get $50 dollars for something they'll do it without concern for the animal. And obviously the panda coat comment is completely innapropriate to post where people are obviously admiring LIVE pandas.

Anyhow, thanks for the great video. You're right, they do make me smile!

Sent by Anonymous | 1:01 PM | 4-26-2008

I LOVE pandas, and nothing beats my panda coat. i feel as adorable as a panda when I wear it.

No, i'm kidding, and I think ben was, too.

Mike, not so much.

Sent by Jack | 5:29 PM | 4-26-2008

So Cute!!!!

I love the panda with the bowl on its face!

Sent by Erica | 10:44 PM | 4-26-2008

I do like pandas!

Although I'm Chinese, I haven't seen a video like this one before. The only chance to see a giant panda was to go to the zoo; however you can't get close enough to see clearly.

By the way, they're most charming when having milk, don't you agree?

Sent by Wecan Wong | 10:31 AM | 4-27-2008

The Chinese word for panda literally means "bear cat."

Sent by tiao ming | 2:27 PM | 4-27-2008

Why the f**k are they wearing face masks?

They're not in a hospital.

Cute video, stupid people.

Sent by Kiki | 10:36 PM | 4-27-2008

As adorable as panda are, I believe that it's a mistake to have overly close human-panda interaction.

The danger is that when the pandas are returned to their natural habitat, they will still trust humans. This causes the pandas to ignore the potential danger when they encounter people hunting for panda pelts.

How can a panda be put back into its environment when it doesn't have natural instincts?

They are targeted and easily captured and it's not fair since they are endangered. This makes them too vulnerable.

I'm all for it if they live in captivity in a very large natural environment. That way, the caretakers can monitor them and make sure that they are happy and healthy.

Sent by Jesse | 9:07 AM | 4-28-2008

Hunters, trappers, skinners, farmers, fast food corporations, clothing and apparel shops, industrial factories in the United States and across the globe: they all promised me all the billions of animals they slaughter and use for commercial gain are of the *ugly* (non-panda) variety.

So their slaughter is ok.


That was a close one. For a second there I thought I'd face some sort of moral dilemma that wasn't approved by mainstream society...

Sent by j.w. | 2:30 PM | 4-28-2008

To Kiki,

The panda workers wear masks Because the they don't want to could breath in fur, which can trigger respiratory disease.

Sent by moss | 3:22 AM | 4-29-2008

To Jesse,

This is a research base. I went there over 15 years ago when I was a kid. From my understanding, pandas' reproduction is a huge problem in the wild. If we don't want to see pandas become extinct, then some young pandas have to be raised in the research base. Besides, the research base is inside a huge natural reserve for pandas, where many adult pandas live. True, capturing pandas can be easy and possible, but it is a very serious crime in China, which puts a limit on it.

Anyway, these young pandas are so cute!

Sent by Chen | 3:27 PM | 4-29-2008

To Kiki,

The worker's saliva may also spread some human diseases to little pandas

Sent by moss | 2:02 AM | 4-30-2008


I understand and respect your worries and especially share your love for pandas, but I think I can assure you that "shove" is not a really shove. If you dealt with animals or even kids, you will understand it.

Sent by laifu | 1:29 PM | 4-30-2008

To those who wonder why we cannot leave pandas alone in the wild I say: the extinction of Giant Panda would be inevitable if they were left alone in the field without any human intervention. This is their nature, the biggest problem is that by nature Pandas do NOT like sex, a lot of pandas will die with no babies left behind even they live in a perfectly clean and natural environments.

Sent by Yun | 2:51 PM | 5-7-2008

I too was living in China and had the priveledge of visiting the Panda Research Center last fall. I held one of the babies which was the highlight of my life. They have a magic about them that melts your heart. This must be what it feels like for a new parent to hold their first child. I am in Shanghai now for a wedding and was to visit them again while here, but the earthquake has prevented me from going to Chengdu. There is an endless stream of devastating stories for the people of the area, but I have not been able to find out about the pandas. God, I hope they are all OK.

Sent by Tony Schmid | 10:44 PM | 5-16-2008

After living in China off and on for four years, we visited the Wolong Preserve last spring. It was easily the highlight of our time in China. From what we could observe, the preserve is working hard, along with the World Wildlife Fund, to naturalize all the enclosures, and to balance the wild environment with human interaction. The pandas are dependent on farmed bamboo for much of their food, which in turn provides income for the rural residents in this mountainous area. The focus is on the health and well-being of the pandas, especially the cubs (who are definitely the stars of the center!) and on efforts to return them to their natural environment. The keeper we talked with through our guide spends much of his day observing "his" panda - a keeper is assigned to a cub at birth apparently, and follows the cub to adulthood, forming a close bond with a specific animal.

Our sympathy goes out to the preserve staff who lost friends and co-workers to the quake. We can easily imagine the post-quake challenges they now face in that wild and extreme area of Sichuan, and will be following the story closely.

Sent by Martha | 6:25 AM | 5-22-2008

I love pandas. They are so cute.

Sent by molly | 12:52 AM | 6-6-2008

As everyone knows, there are about 1,590 wild pandas live in China, especially in Sichuan there are 154 captive pandas in Chengdu, Bifengxia and Wolong. And Wolong nature reserve is a very important base for panda. However the earthquake occurred in Sichuan on May 12 let Wolong panda base seriously destroyed. Fortunately no dead body found till now except one. Almost all captive enclosures are collapsed, so most pandas of Wolong now have been transferred to Bifengxia for the security reasons to pandas.

Sent by rasco | 4:37 AM | 7-3-2008

I think panda's should be one of the eight wonders of the world. If people actually watched them there might be less violence in the world. They are amazing, and peaceful to watch. If we could all only be beautifel...and i think we can.

Sent by Sandy | 12:58 AM | 7-26-2008