"It's so the pandas can relax," says Carrie Strehlau, communications specialist for the Memphis Zoo. "For example, if the mother has a baby, it's somewhere for them to be outside and away from the public."
The Memphis Zoo now has just such a private space for sensitive pandas. In fact, all the things you need to house giant pandas are present in the zoo's new China exhibit, an eye-popping addition created by Design Consortium, a New Orleans architectural firm that specializes in building zoos. And when the zoo celebrates the grand opening of its China exhibit on Saturday, there will be acrobats and tai chi classes, Chinese crafts, calligraphy, and cooking demonstrations. A magic show will be performed to mystify the crowd. After dark, there will be, in the great Chinese tradition, a breathtaking fireworks display. But for all of this pomp and pageantry, sadly enough, there will be no giant pandas. Well, unless you count the ice carving over by the reflecting pool. While zoo officials remain confident, no one can say for sure that there ever will be any giant pandas. All they can do is wait and hope.
"We are continuing to work very closely with all the right people in China and the United States to push forward the loan process," Strehlau says. "But it's up to the Chinese government, and we knew that going into it. They have received our research plan, and that's a big part of it. We're sending pictures and getting people excited about it. We have a letter of intent, and every zoo that has had a letter of intent has received giant pandas. So we're all very hopeful that it's not an if but a when situation. And we knew there was a chance that we wouldn't have giant pandas when we opened the exhibit."
While the loan situation may be frustrating, Strehlau reminds that the real focus of this new exhibit isn't giant pandas anyway. It's China. "We feel like it is representative of the country," she says. "It's a great educational exhibit about not just animals but also history and culture. And besides, people will be seeing more animals [than they would otherwise] while we are waiting for word on the giant pandas."
Rather than leave the half-dozen or so exhibit spaces prepared in anticipation of giant pandas empty, the zoo has filled those spaces with yaks, Tibetan moon bears, and binturongs, nocturnal tree- dwelling mammals from the forests of southeast Asia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. (The binturongs were, however, borrowed from the zoo's Creatures Of the Night exhibit.) There will also be a pair of female red pandas similar to but larger than the subspecies of red panda that inhabit the trees in Cat Country. The new pair will be easier to find, according to Strehlau, as they are much larger and won't have nearly as many places to hide.
The exhibit will also feature an abundance of Chinese goldfish in the ornamental pond, three species of pheasants, and numerous other types of fowl, including ducks, white-crested laughing thrushes, and magpies. White-cheeked gibbons will unleash their warbling shrieks from the exhibit's highest points, making the zoo an exponentially noisier place.
"The zoo is going to be twice as loud now," Strehlau says. "Because Primate canyon is close to the China exhibit, we have this feeling that the siamangs are going to hear the white-cheeked gibbons and they are going to talk to each other." For those who may not know, the siamangs are the rather acrobatic monkeys whose virtually incessant howling is the jungle equivalent of a police siren.
The exhibit also boasts a crooked Chinese spirit bridge (designed so that evil spirits can't follow you across), a teahouse (available for parties), an ethnic food court, and a carousel inspired by and devoted to endangered species.
"We tried to keep as much feng shui in as possible," Strehlau says of the China exhibit design. "We have [a solitary] tree in our courtyard because apparently, in China, it's good luck to have just one tree in your courtyard. It looks kind of funny, but there is a story there."