Can Animals Experience Culture Shock, Too?

Giant panda Mei Huan looks pretty happy lying on the ground at Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China on Nov. 16, 2016. She and her twin Mei Lun had come to the base a few weeks earlier. Wang Qin/Chengdu Economic Daily/VCG via Getty Images
Giant panda Mei Huan looks pretty happy lying on the ground at Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China on Nov. 16, 2016. She and her twin Mei Lun had come to the base a few weeks earlier. Wang Qin/Chengdu Economic Daily/VCG via Getty Images


The giant panda species is native to China, but Mei Lun and Mei Huan must've missed the memo. The sisters, who are the first surviving twins ever born in captivity in the United States, recently set metaphorical sail back to their genetic homeland as per an agreement established between the two countries. Although their Chinese caregivers certainly know a thing or two about rearing pandas, there's been buzz about the girls suffering from so-called culture shock.

Born and beloved at Zoo Atlanta, the pandas have reportedly had a difficult time adjusting to their new digs, including the language, food and general surroundings. They're even insistent upon nibbling biscuits, a Southern staple, at every meal.

Some experts aren't too quick to assign an overall label of "culture shock" to what they're experiencing, however. "I'm not sure it's culture shock that's been affecting the panda twins," says Dr. Marc Bekoff, behavioral ecologist and author of the book "The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age." "They were moved across the world and there is a good deal of stress when animals are shipped around."

Bekoff says he's not aware of any research into whether animals can truly experience culture shock, which Merriam-Webster describes as "a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation." But he adds, "because different cultures will have different sights, sounds, and smells, it totally possible that an individual might suffer when exposed to different sensory stimuli. Of course, much will depend on the individual, some being more adaptable than others."

Indeed, pandas are hardly the only animals to have difficulty relocating. "Animals with higher cognitive processes, complex social groups, or a natural behavior of having a specific home range experience more issues when moving to a new home," says lead anthrozoologist Brian Ogle at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida in an email. "There is evidence to demonstrate large predators, elephants, and birds are more prone to difficult transition."

Pets can have a form of culture shock too. "The idea with culture shock is that there's an extra layer added on to that basic one of adjustment, because the customs, climate, and/or general environment differ in some substantial ways," says anthropologist and author of "How Animals Grieve," Barbara J. King, in an email interview. "A pet's response to such an upheaval depends on a number of factors, ranging from the nature and degree of the cultural change between the old home and the new home, the animal's personality, and the impact of the change on the pet's human caretaker, which an attuned cat or dog will pick up on."

Compounding any perceived cultural adjustment is the fact that the pandas left their parents and beloved caretakers behind in Atlanta. "The fact that they're so young, we know that animals imprint on the animals with whom they're reared early in life. They form close bonds because that's who they get accustomed to," Bekoff notes. "The basic principle is that you're ripping apart the most important social bonds that they have."

This is hardly a one-time concern for the Zoo Atlanta staff and Chinese caregivers, since it's likely that the girl pandas' younger twin siblings will follow suit in a few years. "The transfer of animals requires a specific plan, which needs to be implemented by all staff to ensure a smooth transition. This includes exposing the animals to new stimuli early and continuously," Beacon College's Ogle says. "Communication between the two facilities will aid in the process. Many facilities will also send familiar objects with the animals to aid in the transition process. For example, I had a colleague who would send an unwashed uniformed shirt with an animal in their crate so it contained familiar scents." 

No doubt, familiarity was part of the reason Zoo Atlanta sent a 375-pound (170-kilogram) supply of bamboo and 25 pounds (11 kilograms) of the pandas' favorite biscuits for their journey to China. Only 1,864 giant pandas are left in the wild.

Long-term, behavioral ecologist Bekoff would like to see captive breeding eliminated entirely by instead stepping up efforts to preserve their natural habitat, so that the species can make a more organic comeback. "Pour money and efforts into retaining and opening up wild habitat," he says, noting that this is currently happening in parts of China. "There's a lot of people working really hard to reintroduce pandas into the wild. But none of these animals (born in captivity) could make it."