Panda Water Aerobics : Chengdu Diary Post-Quake Pandas Offer Respite

Panda Water Aerobics

Bursts of color at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding Photo by Melissa Block, NPR hide caption

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Photo by Melissa Block, NPR

It's been nine days now since the earthquake rattled us here in Chengdu and caused such terrible devastation close by. The sounds and images collected over these days are haunting.

So, what a rare pleasure to go back today to a green oasis in the middle of this gritty, gray city: the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

The air was fresh and moist. Egrets squawked noisily as they nested overhead. Lush beds of bright flowers lined the paths. The bustle of the city seemed very far away, even though it's right outside the gate.

The panda base here in Chengdu is home to 48 giant pandas. There are babies born last year, still drinking formula from bottles.

There are sub-adults, under five years old, who haven't yet reached sexual maturity. And then there are the moms and dads.

We found one of the adult female pandas, 9-year-old Qi Zhen, relaxing in a pool of water in her outdoor enclosure. She was sitting up, slumped over her paunchy belly, looking like a lazy matron dozing off in the tub. Then, as we watched, she started lifting her feet out of the water, rotating them in small splashy circles, in what could pass for panda water aerobics. Qi Zhen was putting on quite an impressive show, so out came my camera, set to the video function:

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Video by Melissa Block, NPR

Zhang Zhihe, director of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding Photo by Melissa Block, NPR hide caption

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Photo by Melissa Block, NPR

Rare and Precious & Seven Stitches

The director of the panda base, Zhang Zhihe, told me the story behind Qi Zhen's name. There are two meanings, he said. Qi Zhen means "rare and precious." But in Chinese, it also sounds like "seven stitches." When Qi Zhen was born, her mother was so frightened by the sight of her baby that she slapped the tiny cub away. Her claws raked the baby panda's chest. Qi Zhen was taken to the hospital at the base for surgery. She was given seven stitches. And those stitches gave her her name.

And now -- nine years later -- there she was, a happy panda, indeed. Making me very happy for several minutes, in the middle of a long week of sadness.

Melissa Block, with female panda Qi Zhen taking a bath in the background Photo by Zhang Zhihe hide caption

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Photo by Zhang Zhihe

I'm working on a story about the panda base for All Things Considered. I'll talk about how frightened the pandas were during the earthquake. I'll also report on the work the dedicated staff here have been doing to increase the giant panda population, to help save this rare species from extinction. And much more.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: You can hear that story Thursday on All Things Considered.)