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Former zookeeper shares significance of Ya Ya, Le Le leaving Memphis to return to China

"It was chaos but a good chaos," former panda keeper Janet Cooper said, describing the build-up toward the Memphis Zoo receiving Ya Ya and Le Le nearly 20 years ago.

MEMPHIS, Tennessee — It's official. 

On Wednesday, the Memphis Zoo announced their pandas will be heading back to China next year, ending a 20-year-long stay. The zoo's 20-year loan agreement with the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens is soon ending.  

When Ya Ya and Le Le came to the city, "panda-monium" followed. Still, their former keeper said saying goodbye to the two in a few months likely won't actually dampen Memphis Zoo visitation.

"It's really going to have an impact on the staff," former panda keeper Janet Cooper said. "As far as the zoo's reputation and ability, I don't think it's going to be too much of a drawback. It's going to be sad, it's going to be really different."

When Chinese pandas Ya Ya and Le Le came to Memphis in 2003, bringing with them a piece of China, some would even go so far as to describe the event as some kind of city holiday.

"Everybody had previous bear-experience, but pandas are a totally different deal," Cooper said. "They're pretty much all bamboo."

After two decades, Memphis Zoo's current giant panda loan agreement with the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens...

Posted by Memphis Zoo on Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Cooper remembers the new arrivals meant initially telling the two pandas apart, figuring out behavior and working longer hours.

"Even if they had been together, even just the stress of moving across the world, we would have still done a slow introduction."

Ya Ya a.k.a. "Miss Priss" was the first to turn her nose up at new bamboo while Le Le was more methodical in his approach.

Cooper, who's worked with wildlife for 30 years, said when the pandas arrived the zoo was "jam-packed."

"Oh boy — it was chaos but a good chaos." Cooper said. "I mean, the lead-up to them getting there was incredibly busy."

The Memphis Zoo renewed the contract to keep the pandas in 2013 for another 10 years.

"With the pandas, I would imagine it was at least a couple of years they've been were trying to get feelers out if this is going to continue or not," Cooper said. "With the fact that San Diego's left, I would bet we had a pretty could inkling."

Meanwhile, some animal activists are taking the moment to claim a "victory" for the pandas leaving Memphis. In February, a petition by advocacy group In Defense of Animals made waves with claims of mistreatment (receiving a retweet from pop star Billie Eilish). 

Back then, the zoo released a lengthy statement saying they do their best to give their pandas high quality care. 

Cooper said these activists aren't quite seeing the real picture. 

"They're not there, seeing the day-to-day care [and] seeing what's going on," she said. "In an ideal world, we wouldn't need animals in captivity, but this is not an ideal world."

The zoo said it may be six months before the pandas are flown back. Cooper said that contracts will likely need to be signed on both sides to fly an endangered species again.

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