This screencap taken from the official Facebook page of Ocean Park Hong Kong shows giant panda Ying Ying.
HONG KONG – On a spring morning, Hong Kong Observatory issued a rainstorm alert.
At Ocean Park Hong Kong, as soon as they arrived at work at 8:00 am, the caretakers rushed to check out the situation of Le Le and Ying Ying, two 17-year-old giant pandas, as they might be disturbed by the adverse weather.
The two plump and fluffy creatures just woke up and lay cozily in the dormitory, where the temperature was kept between 18 to 24 C.
The exhibition space outside was designed like a mini mountain forest decorated with waterfalls, brooks, rocks, slopes, etc.
After the caretakers cleaned the space and put in the bamboo breakfast, Le Le and Ying Ying came out from the dormitory at around 10:00 am and began enjoying the first of their four daily meals.
The caretakers were relieved: their cared ones behaved as usual, and nothing went wrong. Visitors came in and clustered in front of the pandas, praising the pandas' adorable "table manners."
Le Le and Ying Ying, together with the two deceased giant pandas, Jia Jia and An An, had been given as gifts to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region by the Chinese central government and were loved by a huge "human family" in Hong Kong.
Young couple vs their "veteran young mother"
Wu Jikei, a 39-year-old caretaker, recently paid special attention to Ying Ying, the female. Since Ying Ying had mated with Le Le, the male, around a month ago, she might be out of sorts as her level of hormones fluctuated.
"It doesn't matter whether she has a baby or not. What matters to me is that she and Le Le can be healthy and happy," Wu said, sounding like Ying Ying was her married daughter.
After bringing up the two cubs into a "married couple" for the past 16 years, Wu felt that Le Le and Ying Ying were her children.
Wu joined Ocean Park as a caretaker in 2007 when Le Le and Ying Ying came as a celebration gift for the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to the motherland.
She fell in love with the two little cuties at first sight. "They were so small, so round, and so lovely," she recalled, unable to withhold her excitement even after over a decade.
Back then, one-and-a-half-year-old Le Le and Ying Ying hadn't received any training before, and Wu naturally became their first teacher. She taught them almost everything, even trifles such as opening their mouth to have their teeth inspected.
"It was their first time to learn, and also my first time to teach," said Wu, who was now the assistant curator for the animal department at Ocean Park. Wu believed that she and the pandas had been growing and progressing side by side.
Wu later gave birth to two children but always felt like she had "already experienced the whole process of child-raising before," she said, calling Le Le and Ying Ying her "firstborns."
This screencap taken from the official Facebook page of Ocean Park Hong Kong shows giant panda An An.
"Grandpa" An An vs his young buddy
While attending the pandas was like raising kids for Wu, 35-year-old Leung Galeun, Wu's colleague, felt he had been looking after the elderly.
In 2010, just after graduating from college and receiving the job, Leung was assigned to take charge of An An, who was equivalent to more than 70 years old in human age and had to take medicine and undergo physical examinations every day.
The outgoing young man with curly afro hair felt the pressure of attending a senior of such a precious species.
He remembered that, albeit his age, An An was more like a capricious child who sometimes might not cooperate with the caretakers at his will.
Majored in psychology in college, Leung adopted his professional knowledge to coax An An into completing all sorts of medical treatment and gave him positive feedback as encouragement.
As An An grew older and his health declined, Leung had to keep a more watchful eye on him to observe even the slightest changes.
Once, An An did not go to a lower corner of the exhibition space as usual. Leung noticed and, just in case, called the veterinarian to give An An an examination. It turned out that An An's arthritis worsened, thanks to Leung's early warning.
An An passed away last July, with Leung accompanying him around the clock for his last few days. "I knew the final day would inevitably come, but when it did come, it still made me sad," Leung said.
Leung found himself more mature and stable while caring for An An during the past decade or so. "I stayed with Anan longer than with my family or friend." he said, "He was my family."
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Giant pandas vs their "large family"
At Ocean Park Hong Kong, the caretaking team for giant pandas comprised more than a dozen members, with Wu as the leader.
Petite and slender, Wu could carry up a bundle of bamboo of at least 15 kilograms at a draught. Physically demanding notwithstanding, the job of caretaker requires an abundance of love and patience for animals, Wu emphasized.
Due to the devotion of the caretakers, Jia Jia and An An passed away at 38 and 35, respectively, which were old ages for the giant panda.
In Hong Kong, giant pandas are cared for by more people who call themselves "giant panda fans." Leung said many of them came to see the pandas every weekend, and some even became good friends with the caretakers.
Leung also started a social media account to share photos and videos of pandas, attracting more fans online for Le Le and Ying Ying.
Immersed in love, pandas reciprocated the love received in their own ways. For example, Jia Jia would always come to Wu and offer the girl to stroke her back, "which made me feel that my efforts were rewarded," Wu said.
Leung recalled that An An would be more active in his final days if more visitors came to see him as if replying to people's concerns.
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An An and Jia Jia were buried under two ginko trees at Ocean Park. As the spring came, a few tender green shoots appeared on the tips of the trees.
Every weekend, panda fans would come to the trees to see their deceased friends and then turn to visit Le Le, Ying Ying, and their "human family," those devoted caretakers.