Brenda Morgan's job just may be more coveted than a spot in the White House. Being keeper to the National Zoo's new pandas, like being adviser to the president, certainly has its perks. She got to fly on Panda One, the first-class flight bringing the pandas from China to Washington, D.C. (who needs Air Force One?), and she has the ear of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, dubbed one of Washington's biggest power couples.
It's a little before 8:00 a.m. and Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are definitely morning pandas. Morgan has already opened their adjoining dens, and they are tussling inside one of the indoor enclosures.
In the evenings the pandas are kept separate so that keepers can easily identify and mark urine and feces samples. Morgan says the pandas also need quiet time alone.
"At some point in their lives they are going to have to spend some time apart, so it's a good time and a good way to reinforce that," Morgan says. "She [Mei Xiang] doesn't mind. He [Tian Tian] gets a little antsy sometimes and wants to be able to go over and say 'Hey, wanna play?'"
After some early morning playtime, the pandas get ready for their morning weigh-in. From the keeper cage situated between the indoor enclosure and the yard, Morgan coaxes the pandas to sit on a giant scale suitable for a giant panda. She notes that they are growing slowly but steadily, a sign that things are going well.
Next Morgan weighs bamboo for breakfast, dragging leafy stalks into a basket scale. The pandas get between 3 and 4 kilograms of locally grown, yellow groove bamboo for an indoor breakfast and then another 5 kilograms for outdoor dining. Before the day is done they will have eaten about 50 to 60 pounds of bamboo.
Morgan heaps it on thick. Panda praise comes easily for her. "You're just brilliant," she says to Mei Xiang, who has pressed a fleshy paw pad against Morgan's palm. The game they are playing is a medical exam in disguise. Morgan can check panda paws and other body parts by asking Mei Xiang and Tian Tian to mimic her movements behind the chain-link fence of the keeper cage. The pandas are rewarded with treats resembling doggie biscuits, which Morgan calls "chow."
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are in complete control of these training sessions, able to leave when they've had enough and are tired of the activity. Sometimes Morgan is sure the pandas are training her.
"She's working on training us still," she says of Mei Xiang. "She sleeps when she wants 'cause it's a lot of hard work training us."
Now that the pandas have had their indoor breakfast and some one-on-one time with their number-one keeper, it's time for their morning constitutional. The two will spend much of the remainder of the day outdoors eating, playing and sleeping.
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.