Panda Video Goes Viral After Keepers in Chengdu Accused of Animal Cruelty

Giant panda cub
A baby giant panda plays at Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China, January 22. A video showing keepers at the facility allegedly mistreating two panda cubs went viral and sparked outrage in China. Jason Lee/Reuters

A video appearing to show panda keepers mistreating giant panda cubs at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding sparked outrage on Chinese social media, forcing the center to address the controversy Thursday.

The surveillance footage, recorded on July 12, shows panda keepers struggling to stop the cubs, Rourou and Manman, from following them out of the door of their enclosure. The keepers are seen repeatedly pushing, dragging and throwing the pandas away from the door. Animal rights activists condemned the video and criticized the keepers in a country where pandas are a beloved national symbol.

The Chengdu center is a popular tourist destination, well known for its conservation efforts. Staff addressed the complaints about the pandas' treatment on Thursday. "When we saw the video, we thought the staff members had overreacted, even though they meant no harm to the pandas," said Wu Kongju, a panda expert at the base, quoted in the Chinese state media Xinhua.

"But we hope people can show more understanding towards the panda keepers, because although giant pandas look cute, they are quite strong and can be violent," she added.

The panda keepers denied the accusations of cruelty and said they believed the footage had been edited to show them in an unflattering light. One of appearing in the video said he was bitten by the cub. He still had bite marks on his hand, as he showed to the cameras.

"It bit my hand really hard, its teeth cut into the flesh and my hand started bleeding," Guo Jingpeng said, quoted in Xinhua. "When it tried to bite me again, I pushed it away out of instinct."

Guo protested that the 2-minute video was not telling the full story, and that pandas can become violent once they reach 1 or 2 years old. "When they are happy, they may act normally, but if they experience any external stimulation, they can react quite violently," he said.

Another panda keeper, Xie Huhai, said that to the playful pandas, biting is just a way of "having fun," but "panda fun" could cause injuries to the keepers. "We often get hurt by the pandas," Xie said. "Scratches and bites are daily occurrences."

Dozens of online videos show how persistent giant panda cubs can be in heading for a door and trying to escape their enclosure. But the Chengdu center's reaction failed to placate some of the irate viewers. "I don't care what he has to say, they were just babies," wrote Loo Jiaying from the capital Beijing on the popular microblogging site Weibo, the BBC reported. "It made me so angry to watch him throw a defenseless cub around. If he was so worried about his safety, why wasn't he wearing protective equipment like gloves?"

There are now estimated to be some 2,060 giant pandas in the world. In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changed the status of the giant panda from "endangered" to "vulnerable" after a population increase in China.