A Panda Keepers Life Brenda Morgan's Story

Brenda Morgan, senior panda keeper at the National Zoo.
Brenda Morgan, senior panda keeper at the National Zoo.

Brenda Morgan reads pandas. It's a skill almost as mysterious as reading palms or tarot cards. But when you watch her with Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, you're sure it's a skill she was born with.

She knows that a pacing panda is usually looking to be entertained, approaching her keeper cage with a quizzical look. Morgan then adeptly translates such behavioral panda-speak into English: "Helloo? Were you going to bring me something to do or what?" Morgan says, in a mildly irritated panda pitch.

And Morgan always seems to be ready with something. She plays doting mother to the panda pair, cleaning up after them; feeding them breakfast, lunch and dinner; and keeping them entertained with stimulating panda games.

In her 15 years as a keeper at the zoo, she has been caretaker to pandas for nine, working with the zoo's previous pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing and now the new pair. While she has also worked with camels, elephants and gibbons, she admits that pandas have a special place in her heart. In fact she's completely captivated by them, mesmerized by their sleeping, eating and play habits.

She finds it hard to pull herself away from the TV screens, where she watches them in a particularly raucous round of play. The smaller Mei Xiang appeared to be getting the upper hand on Tian Tian, who usually dominates in their bouts.

"Get him, Mei!" Morgan cheers, as Mei bats at Tian Tian in a flurry of paws.

Morgan ends her day shift by preparing the panda's snacks, supplements to their mostly bamboo meals, for the next day. The morning bag is full of their high-fiber, vitamin-packed biscuits; the afternoon bag adds apples and carrots to the biscuits for an outdoor snack; and the evening mix adds a cooked sweet potato to hide medicine when necessary.

And on her way out, she'll update the evening keeper (who'll bring the pandas in for the night around 4:30 p.m.) on all the day's amazing panda doings.