1988 was a pivotal year for me; I started university, met my long term partner Paul and the Giant Pandas Fei Fei and Xiao Xiao toured Australia. We went to see them at Melbourne Zoo because they are Paul’s favourite animal. The one stuffed toy that Paul has kept since childhood is a bedraggled panda. He has always loved this very special black and white bear. I would also come to love them but in a most unusual way.
Into The Darkness 2000 was another pivotal year for me. I graduated from university and promptly caught a flu that would plague me for years and would almost destroy my mind, body and soul. After years of antibiotics and no respite from the flu I contracted Post Viral Syndrome – PVS (a form of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). Not much is known about PVS, in fact doctors didn’t diagnose me, a naturopath did! But it took me a while to get to a naturopath. First I sank into a deep mental and physical depression. I was semi bedridden for over two years. Those years are still painful to remember. Weeks would go by in a blur. I rarely left the house and exercise was a thing of the past. Being intensely private I didn’t want anyone to know how sick I was so when I was invited places I would drag myself out of bed, get dressed and go. I would have a good time and then spend about three weeks in bed to recover. This went on and on. I couldn’t see an end to the misery or the pain. And then an amazing thing happened. A television show changed my life!
Through the Bamboo Forest I remember Paul asking me if I would like to watch a documentary on giant pandas. Since it required nothing more of me than to lie on a couch and keep my eyes open I said okay. One hour later I was a changed person. What happened? Those damn pandas broke my heart. I watched as mother pandas groomed their fragile and precious cubs; cubs fighting for their survival and the survival of their species. I watched as the world fought to stop this precious creature from becoming extinct. Panda reserves and panda breeding programs had been established in China and with co-operation and participation from the rest of the world, the fight to save the panda was in full swing. I wanted to be part of that fight! The documentary ended with a cub making its first climb into a tree. As the dainty little cub struggled, I saw my own struggle reflected. There are plenty of humans on the planet but only one me – I was nearly extinct and I wanted to survive. When the documentary finished I started sobbing, for the pandas but also for myself. Like Scarlett O’Hara I vowed I would never be brought down so low again. Taking that image of the triumphant baby panda with me I began the slow process of getting healthy. Walking With Pandas I wasn’t alone on my journey. I had always had the support of my partner and I was lucky enough to find a naturopath who could diagnose and treat me. Through a combination of homeopathic medicine, meditation, diet and exercise I slowly regained the ability to live. I wanted to make something of myself but mostly I wanted to be able to give something to the animal welfare movement. So each day I would get up, get dressed and put one foot in front of the other. I began daily walking, some days I could only walk past two houses other days I travelled further. I began walking around the block and was soon walking 20 minutes to the local shops and 20 minutes back – with a coffee break in between! One day, after coming back from my now routine 60 minute walk, a neighbour called me over and told me how proud she was of me. I never knew that she had been watching me from those early days. She had watched me go from hobbling wreck to a – well not a power walker – but a walker with a surprising turn of speed! What she hadn’t seen was that I wasn’t alone on those walks. I had company – and what strange company they were.
The companions on my journey were pandas. You see the pandas came with me after that documentary. I was surprised, and slightly disturbed to find I had a cast of panda characters in my head. They had names, personalities and different voices. Some were old, some were young, most were female. They inspired me when I thought I couldn’t go any further. I even had an inner critic panda who would mock my valiant efforts! I’m a writer so I’m no stranger to insanity but this didn’t feel like I had gone crazy. Bizarrely it felt like I had evolved. Ancient Pagan Deities were often pictured with animals and some were depicted as animal or half animal themselves. That’s how I felt: part human, part panda and for the first time in a long time, all me. Not long after the panda invasion Paul and I saw a stuffed panda that had a scrunched face with a grumpy expression. He laughed and said it reminded him of me. And then he bought her for me – my first stuffed panda!! She’s my favourite and runs my pack of stuffed pandas with an iron paw. Unlike real pandas my stuffed pandas have bred – a lot! And I never leave home without a panda. I used to take a stuffed one with me but now I have panda tattoos – no chance of forgetting them when I go out!
Full Circle 25 years after Fei Fei and Xiao Xiao delighted us in Melbourne, Paul and I celebrated 25 years of not being married in the most symbolic way – we went to China to cuddle a panda! As I waited in line at the Chengdu Panda Base a few thoughts crossed my mind. Excitement was one! A few years earlier we had done the VIP tour in Adelaide to meet the pandas Wang Wang and Funi. We got to pat their heads but that was through bars. Now I was about to sit next to a baby panda! My inner critic panda popped up and suggested it was exploitive to pimp pandas out for pats. But then one year old Miao Miao was carried out and all legible thought was erased. All I could think was – baby panda!! When my turn came I eagerly sat next to the little panda princess who seemed to delight in greeting her fawning subjects. I patted her and held back the tears. I wanted to thank her and all the pandas for what they had done for me. I promised the little cub that I would continue to fight for the survival of all animals, especially pandas. If I had any doubts about the process they were allayed by the staff at the panda reserve. They graciously and enthusiastically thanked everyone who had paid for the privilege of patting a panda. They assured us the money would be used to keep the panda dream alive. And I know it will.
Our guide was waiting for us and he too thanked us for our support of the panda. He took us around the reserve and his love and knowledge were breathtaking. He knew the names of all the pandas and kept track of their progress. We couldn’t believe it when we saw a group of baby pandas laid out sunbaking on a plank of wood. That is the photo on my banner. Later we saw the same baby pandas asleep in their crib. Everywhere we looked we saw adorable pandas doing what they do best – eating, playing and sleeping. We ended the day walking with red pandas. Chengdu Panda Reserve was a great day out but we wanted more!
The next day we went with our guide to the Bifengxia Panda Reserve. He was delighted at our reaction when he showed us Tai Shan!! We squealed – Tai Shan Butterstick! He was nicknamed Butterstick after a zookeeper at the National Zoo in Washington said that he was the size of a stick of butter when he was born. Next we were treated to some amazing baby panda antics. We were just in time to see two baby pandas about to be fed milk in metal bowls. They were so cheeky. One panda didn’t want to have its mouth wiped so it rolled on the ground and then rolled in spilt milk! We saw other baby pandas playing on plastic toys. These were images we had often seen on Pandas International and now we were seeing them live. We ended our day watching a group of five young pandas eating, playing and then chasing each other up trees. One panda climbed up a tree all on its own and put on quite a show. I was reminded of a little baby panda climbing a tree in a documentary; a baby panda that had given me the courage to get up and climb my own trees. Meeting the pandas in their homeland was a life changing experience. They gave me the courage to continue my journey in a new and wonderful way. This journey would involve an American artist, cartoonist and writer. It is a journey that has only just begun. And it is no surprise that the stars of this journey are pandas.
The Anne Belov Connection I first came across Anne Belov and The Panda Chronicles through Pandas International, a fantastic organisation dedicated to the giant panda cause. One day I noticed a panda cartoon from Pandas International on my Facebook feed. Intrigued, I clicked to see what it was. That’s when I met Bob T. Panda! If you love quirky and witty cartoons you must go and visit him. Needless to say I was hooked. I quickly bought the Panda Chronicle Books and followed The Panda Chronicles blog. Through this blog I met their delightful creator Anne Belov. We began interacting and I found her to be funny and generous AND she was as crazy about pandas as I was! I loved her pandas so much and I dearly wanted to become more a part of the Panda Chronicles. I noticed that her pandas, especially the endearing panda kindergarten, had a fondness for cupcakes, or as they call them – cuppycakes 🙂 I hatched a plan! Emboldened by my visit to China, I threw caution to the winds and emailed Anne with an idea for a collaboration. Luckily she said yes!! Anne has happily agreed to be my guest blogger so you can read all about her, the pandas and our planned book next time. Not Everything Is Black & White My beloved pug Wolfy passed away nearly a year ago. He was my Chinese panda dog and I miss him dearly. I was too devastated after his death to buy him his own memory box so I stuffed all his mementoes and condolence cards in mine. For Southern Hemisphere Halloween (April 30th) I finally got him his own red memory box. I started going through my box and pulling out his things. I cried as I re-read his cards and remembered his life. But then I stopped crying. There at the bottom of my box of memories was an article I had cut out. It was about the giant pandas visiting Melbourne in 1988. Way back then those peculiar black and white creatures had cast a spell on me and when I needed them most they came out of the bamboo forest and offered their help. My childhood search for a favourite animal has finally ended. I can think of no better animal than one that wasn’t chosen by me but that reached out with its own furry paw to touch and heal me mind, body and soul.
I’ve always talked to the animals,
but the giant pandas are the first ones who talked back
and they’re still talking!