China / People

Playing with pandas

By Huang Zhiling (China Daily) Updated: 2014-02-25 10:28


Playing with pandas

Days at the Opera 

Playing with pandas

Big shoes to fit

My China Dream | James Ayala

He started his career training the sea animals on New York's Coney Island, and now he has his dream job working with giant pandas in Chengdu. But James Ayala's work is more than just fun and games - it's a critical part of the research of these endangered animals. Huang Zhiling reports in Chengdu.

"Honey, come here," he whispers.

James Ayala's tone suggest she is speaking to his girlfriend, but his words are directed to Jing Jing, a 9-year-old female giant panda.

"I have spent a lot of time with Jing Jing. It is important to make the animal you work with feel comfortable. Jing Jing doesn't know what I say but understands my tone. If I am nervous, she will feel my tension and get nervous too," says Ayala, a 39-year-old researcher of animal behavior from the United States.

Ayala is the only full-time foreign employee of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in the northern suburbs of Chengdu, Sichuan province. He has been working at the base since May 2012, serving as a consultant in the daily care of the 70-odd giant pandas that live there.

He has managed to train Jing Jing to take an ultrasound examination without being anesthetized, which is important because excessive use of anesthetic drugs can harm the animals.

"Jing Jing is in her breeding stage. The ultrasound is important to deter-mine whether she is pregnant," says Ayala, who has taught Jing Jing to lie down and roll over so that vets can examine her.

Born and raised in New York, Ayala, who received his master's degree in conservation biology at Antioch University in New Hampshire, started training animals at the Coney Island Aquarium in Brooklyn, working with seals and walruses, when he was only 22.

Since then, he has trained beluga whales, sealions, several different species of monkey and Asiatic black bears.

The first time Ayala saw agiant panda was around 1980 when he was 5." I was obsessed with animals so my parents took me to the National Zoo in Washington DC to see Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, the two pandas from China. This was the only place in the US at the time that had pandas. I remember waiting forever in line to see them and then being disappointed because they were so faraway," he says.

In February 1972, after US President Richard Nixon's visit to China, the Chinese government presented the two pandas to the US as gifts, and the animals were instantly popular with the public.

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