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.