Four days

That’s how many days I’m with Feng Yi … I mean, volunteer at the panda complex in Zoo Negara Malaysia every week – two days during the week and the weekends.

At the time I adopted her in September 2006, nobody knew she would one day come to live in Malaysia as part of a 10-year loan agreement with China, or that I would one day be a volunteer where she would be – Zoo Negara Malaysia.

Well, not nobody; Somebody knew. God knew.

It’s many years since I last visited the Zoo. As a child, I was a frequent visitor. Every time a cousin or friend visited from Sandakan, my late mother’s hometown in East Malaysia, we would take them to the main attractions in and around Kuala Lumpur – Parliament House, National Monument, National Mosque, Batu Caves, and Zoo Negara. Later, there were no more such visits and no more reasons to visit.

I think my last visit was back in the early 1970s. Meanwhile, life happened, everything moved on. The Zoo became a part of my childhood memories. Then came the news, more than 30 years later, that a pair of pandas would be coming to Malaysia. The agreement was signed, a friend forwarded me a press release identifying the two pandas and I learned that Feng Yi is one of them. I went along to see the location of the giant panda exhibit, and thought I would have to travel more than 80km each time to see her when she got here. It turned out that Putrajaya Wetlands was not in God’s plans for the pandas in Malaysia; Zoo Negara Malaysia was. And so, after all these years, I stepped foot in the Zoo again in early May 2013 for my first look at the construction of the giant panda exhibit that would be her, and Fu Wa’s, home for the next 10 years.

Feng Yi and I have come a long way since that visit in May 2013. She and Fu Wa have travelled more than 3,000km to their new home in Zoo Negara Malaysia. These days, I travel between 50 and 60km each time I go there to see … er, volunteer at the panda complex.

People are surprised when I say I’m a volunteer at the panda complex. It’s not a unique position created for me because I’m Feng Yi’s adopter. There is a volunteer programme at the Zoo. When I read about the programme on the Zoo’s website, I decided to sign up for it. When I submitted the form, I was told not to expect to be assigned to the panda complex; volunteers cannot choose what area/s they want to work in. After the panda complex opened in late June and Fu Wa and Feng Yi went on public display, I showed up on the first morning, and have been showing up four days a week since then, and so far, have not been told not to. I’d like to think that my relationship to Feng Yi and my experience volunteering at both Wolong and Bifengxia are the reasons for this privilege, even though it’s not the same sort of volunteer work.

When reporters heard that I’m a volunteer there, they asked if the volunteer programme for the panda complex had started. There had been news in the media a while back that the Zoo was thinking of a behind-the-scenes volunteer programme that would allow the public to pay for the experience of helping to care for Feng Yi and Fu Wa. That’s not what I do at the panda complex. My volunteer duties don’t include helping the keepers to feed Feng Yi and Fu Wa, clean their yards, prepare their food, etc. At the panda complex, I help with crowd control, especially on weekends, watching for flashes from cameras and asking visitors not to be so noisy. I also chat with visitors and answer their questions.

Besides local visitors, we also get a good number of foreign visitors. Some of them are actually expatriates working and living here. I’ve chatted with visitors from Japan, South Africa, England, the States, the Middle East, Holland, and Belgium. Besides sharing panda information with them, I’ve also heard some interesting comments in return.

The Middle East visitors were curious how much we “paid” for our pandas and where we got them from; one of them said he would go to Wolong to buy a pair. Good luck to him.

The visitor from South Africa made a very interesting comment, that one day zoos might be the only places to see rhinos and the only places to protect them from poaching. She had seen the rhinos in the Savannah Walk area on her way to the panda complex. Her comment challenges zoos to be worthy of being protectors of, and not just places to see, wild animals.

A visitor from Belgium told me they have pandas there, too, and was comparing opening hours – no time limit there – until I asked if she’s visited Hao Hao and Xing Hui, and she said no, she and her husband are actually based in Malaysia.

That briefly is what I do with much of my time these days. Four days at the panda complex in Zoo Negara Malaysia every week – two days during the week (usually Tuesdays and Thursdays) and the weekends. Come and say hello if you’re there on one of those days.