Motherhood becomes her

Whether in the wild or in captivity, a female giant panda’s mothering instincts are natural. She either has it or she doesn’t. And it doesn’t matter where she gives birth, she would’ve responded the same to her newborn: either by picking it up or ignoring it.

Motherhood came naturally to Feng Yi. And I had the privilege to watch her in action every day during my recent visit with her and her baby.

I was told when her baby was born, when it slipped out of her and onto the floor, slipping, sliding and squawking, she had looked at it the way a first-time panda mother would look. Next, she had tried to pick it up, and failed. She tried a second time, and failed again. On her third attempt, she succeeded, picking it up with her mouth the way a panda mother would pick up her newborn baby. And then she had brought it to rest on her chest.

I was told from then on, her focus was 100% on her newborn. Its comfort came before her own. Whenever it squirmed or squawked, she would adjust its position or her own to make the baby comfortable. It came to a point where she wouldn’t eat in case she upset the little one. She didn’t even rest much. For its sake, she went hungry and tired. Fortunately, it didn’t last long.

When the keepers saw what was going on, they made a decision to take the baby from her so she could eat and rest. The baby was in the nursery for the next 24 hours. When it was returned to her, they showed her how to eat without upsetting her baby. Since then, mother and cub have been inseparable except for the baby’s check-ups and recently for its public debut with the other cubs born this year.

During my first visit with them on 10 September, she showed just what an attentive mother she was. At the slightest sound or movement, she would lower her head to nuzzle her little one.

I also saw how comfortable she was having her baby in one front paw, and eating with the other. Her baby was not always in the same front paw; from time to time, whenever it showed the slightest discomfort, she would switch it from one front paw to the other and back again, even as she continued to eat. She is now quite the expert with looking after herself together with her baby. As the baby grew bigger, it also got used to the sound of mummy feeding right next to its ears, and having ‘boo showers rain down around its little head.

For the next couple of days after my first visit, whenever I saw them, baby would be lying on mummy’s ample chest. On the 13th, when I looked in on them in the afternoon, it was nowhere to be found. As I watched, I saw movement and heard a loud squawk among the pile of bamboo next to where Feng Yi was lying. It turned out she was now comfortable to have the baby on the ground next to her. Even then, as soon as it vocalised, she put her paw out to soothe the baby.

For me, Feng Yi’s mothering instincts really shone in the way she kept her enclosure. It had been there before my eyes each morning when I visited, but I finally noticed it on the seventh morning of my visit. That morning, her keeper hadn’t cleaned her enclosure but it wasn’t all that dirty; there were just three piles. In the far corner where she sat with her little one was one pile of leftover bamboo that she was still munching. Nearby was a second pile of bamboo while right across from them was the third pile – a mess of her droppings. Yes, she knew to keep the baby’s corner clean and to poop in another corner. As she wasn’t the only panda mother I saw doing this, I can only conclude that this habit comes with being a giant panda mother. Silly me, but I feel proud that my little girl has taken to motherhood so well.

Overview of Feng Yi’s enclosure