TORONTO – A pair of giant pandas born and raised in China are about to receive a Canadian welcome worthy of their name.
The Toronto Zoo will begin playing host to a male and female bear on Monday, just over a year after the cuddly creatures were officially loaned to Canada by the Chinese government.
Five-year-old Er Shun and her prospective mating partner, four-year-old Da Mao, will call Toronto home for five years before being relocated to the Calgary Zoo for the same length of time. Canadian and Chinese officials have voiced hopes the pair will add to the species’ sparse population during their sojourn.
The animals are arriving in Canada in the sort of style not often experienced by even two-legged diplomats.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who personally announced the loan deal during a trip to China last year, will be on hand to greet the new arrivals as they disembark from a highly customized plane trip.
A FedEx Express Canada MD11 aircraft branded with an image of a panda left for Canada on Sunday afternoon. The plane carrying the pandas is to arrive in Toronto on Monday morning.
FedEx Express Canada president Lisa Lisson said the process of preparing the bears for travel began days before the flight.
“We created very special customized enclosures for the two pandas and we actually sent them over there,” Lisson said. “They’re in the panda’s environment so they can go up to them and look at them and touch them . . . so when they go inside the enclosures they’ll be familiar with them.”
A veterinarian and two attendants is accompanying the pandas for their entire journey, Lisson said, adding part of their job description will be to cater to the animals’ capricious dietary whims.
The aircraft is stocked with bamboo, apples and water as well as some of the pandas’ favourite toys, she said. The bamboo that forms the backbone of the pandas’ diet will continue to be in high demand once the animals are ensconced in their new home, she said. FedEx has agreed to bring in up to 900 kilograms of the plant three times a week from the Memphis Zoo for the duration of their stay, she added.
Lisson said such vast quantities are critical for creatures known for their demanding eating habits.
“They actually eat quite a lot. Up to 16 hours a day they can spend eating. They can consume anywhere from 14 to 20 kilograms of bamboo a day to make sure they get enough nutrition,” she said. “They’re very picky, too. They might go through 10 bamboo just to find one that they like.”
Upon arrival in Toronto, Lisson said the animals will be transported to the Toronto Zoo in specially branded trucks.
The zoo issued a statement saying the pandas will be placed into “immediate quarantine” and will not be accessible to the public. The zoo declined to comment on when the panda exhibit would open.
Er Shun and Da Mao will be the first pandas to visit Canada in 24 years.
The Toronto and Calgary Zoos played host to bear pairs in 1985 and 1988, respectively, while another couple took up a brief residence at the Winnipeg Zoo in 1989.