Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Are pandas dangerous?

Bai Yun. Photograph by
San Diego Shooter @Flickr
By and large, no. Wherever possible, a wild panda will (very sensibly) steer well clear of humans. But they can be, as a story that appeared in the Los Angeles Times last week demonstrates.

This reported that Bai Yun, a 19-year-old star attraction at San Diego Zoo, pushed through a gate that separated her from her keepers and bit one of them on the arm. The unnamed female keeper was rushed to hospital, according to zoo officials.

The LA Times subsequently reported that California’s state agency concerned with worker safety would be investigating the incident, which it described as an “attack”. The keeper had apparently been “severely” injured with a bite to the leg (rather than the arm as was stated in the original story).

As there is an investigation pending, there’s no point in speculating further about the circumstances surrounding this particular incident. But it does remind me of a similar event that took place at the London Zoo in the 1960s.

The panda in question was Chi-Chi, recently arrived from Sichuan. I know far too much about this panda as she takes a pivotal role in my book The Way of the Panda. But one story I didn’t include about her (for no reason in particular) was her savaging of a young keeper called Christopher Madden. Desmond Morris recounted events in characteristic style in his 1966 book Men and Pandas. I am sure he won’t mind me quoting a bit of it here:

Now, out of the blue, came this assault on sixteen-year-old Christopher Madden. Chi-Chi knocked him down and, as he lay helpless on his back, had sat on him and started savaging his leg. Ken Alliborne, a keeper from the Monkey House nearby, heard his screams and without a moment’s hesitation leapt into the enclosure (from which there was no escape for either man or panda) and ran towards the boy on the ground. Picking up Madden’s broom, he tried as hard as he could to lever Chi-Chi off the boy, but she refused to budge. Blood was pouring from Madden’s leg and Alliborne was forced to take drastic action. He clouted the panda on the head with the broom and Chi-Chi looked up, startled, just long enough for him to pull Madden clear.
Alliborne kept Chi-Chi at bay until help arrived and was awarded the Zoological Society’s Bronze Medal for his bravery.

There is a very interesting twist to this story. Madden was off work for seven months whilst his leg healed and the zoo held his position for him (which is probably quite unusual for the 1950s). But when Madden returned, Chi-Chi clearly recognised him, “growling and pacing angrily up and down her enclosure as soon as the young keeper reappeared.” Madden had to be kept from the panda and went to work with the giraffes instead.

At only 16 back then, Madden would now be in his 60s. I love the idea that I might be able to talk to him about this incident. If anyone knows of his whereabouts do let me know.


  1. Hey Hen. I just wrote a reasonably long comment to your blog entry on the Savage Panda, which I enjoyed. Pressed send and your blog unhelpfully informed me that it couldn't complete my request, at the same time expunging my post from existence. I'm going to try to post this shorter message now, before I pour any more of my soul onto stony ground...

  2. Sad to say but, an "unprovoked" attack on just one individual, leaves me wondering about their previous interactions. Was he wearing something that enraged the animal? Was he taunting the animal (the way that tiger attack from another zoo was provoked)?

    1. I agree with you these rhings could really affect an animal's behavior

  3. Anonymous
    I have not been able to find out anything more about Chi-Chi's attack on Madden, beyond what's in Desmond Morris' book.
    In the San Diego case, it sounds like an innocent mistake - see the Cal/OSHA report that appeared in July http://is.gd/hJGc3P.

  4. JP Devlin continues the saga of celebrity panda Chi-chi this week with Chris Madden who was the man she mauled, cut and paste link below.to listen to programme about (30 mins in)


  5. I think that the panda was provoked because I have been searching all over the internet and pandas never attack humans unless there is a good reason.

  6. Hi my name is Ray Allibone I remember the incident well Ken Allibone was my uncle we both worked as keepers at the zoo I worked with Chris in the insect house in 1971 he did walk with a limp having lost the calf muscle in that leg I'm afraid I cant be much help as to where he is now and Ken died some years ago he has two brothers still alive and I have been promised his medal later in case you wont it my email swampyswildliferescue@rocketmail.com

    1. Hi Ray.
      I have only just seen this site. Ken was a good friend during my 7 years at the Zoo. We shared a daft sense of humour! Some of the comments above are not worth a mention but when I saw your name I thought I should reply. The only reason I'm alive is down to Ken's brave move, I was sorry to hear that he is no longer around. Regards. Chris.M. (age 66!)

    2. They shouldn't be in a zoo .good enough they got bitten .

  7. Sorry Chris only just seen your reply glad your still about yes Ken had a great sense of humour his brothers and sisters were just the same funny lot . But very proud of him he was one of the youngest in the family it was sad when he went . As you know people dont realise it was very much hands on working with some of the animals in the zoo in those days no such thing as health and safety you just got on with the job a lot of keepers had close encounters at one time including my self but yours was the eye opener . Anyway all the best mate Ray Allibone.