Wearing a gray jumpsuit and rubber boots, Wang Xiaojun beckoned the giant panda, a yellow bun in his hand.
"Jinzhu, Jinzhu, come here," he called. Upon hearing the familiar voice, Jinzhu, the panda, walked into the pen, grabbed the bun from his hand and started munching on the treat.
After locking Jinzhu in her pen, Wang stepped out and started cleaning the enclosure. He swept away the feces and leftover bamboos and dragged in bunches of fresh bamboos, before letting the panda, who was getting agitated after she finished her bun, back out to play.
Wang, 29, is a panda keeper at the Wolong-based China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Panda in Sichuan Province. His daily routine includes feeding the mother pandas three to four times a day with 60 to 70 kilograms of bamboo. The pandas each consume about 15 kilograms of bamboo a day, and produce 10 to 15 kilograms of feces, all of which are Wang's responsibility.
Every day Wang documents the amount of bamboos and hand-made feed given to his charges, and the amount and conditions of the feces. He also notes down any activities the pandas do.
But his job at Wolong is different from that of a regular zookeeper. In the snow-capped Wolong reserve, deep in the mountains, the four mother pandas and their babies, between 1 and 2 years old, are kept in the wild. It's part of the center's program to teach the cubs how to survive on their own and eventually release them back to nature. Human contact is kept at a minimum.
"With the cubs, we ignore them or scare them off if they get close, so as to teach them not to get too close to humans," said Wang. Giant pandas can come to be too dependent on humans, rendering them incapable of surviving on their own.
When contact is necessary, like the monthly checkup for the baby pandas, Wang puts on a hunting suit which blocks his human smell, and then puts a specially made panda suit over it.
"We just don't want the pandas to get the idea that humans are nice to them," he said.
Wang has been a panda keeper for three years. Before joining the program in Wolong, he worked in the center's base in Ya'an, to the south of Wolong, where the main focus is on panda breeding.
At Ya'an, the keepers would call the pandas by their names, pet them on the head and praise them. At the breeding center, the pandas, especially the younger ones, would come running and hug people's legs when they knew it was time to eat.
Wang, from Weinan, Shaanxi Province, is a veterinarian by training. Before becoming a panda keeper, he worked as a vet in a zoo in Xi'an.
"Pandas are very different from other animals," said Wang. With the other animals in the zoo, things were relatively straightforward. With pandas, one has to be more careful. A big part of Wang's job is to teach the panda certain moves, much like training a dog or circus animal. "The purpose is to get them to cooperate during a checkup without anesthesia," said Wang.
For instance pandas have to learn to sit up and grab the bar of the pen with the claws while researchers and vets draw blood or give injections. They also need to learn to lie on their backs or stomachs, or sides for CT scans, ultrasound and other medical exams.
"Some pandas are smart and learn rapidly, but some are really dumb," said Wang, smiling. "They learn one trick today and forget all about it the next day." It's sometimes frustrating but he tries to be patient.
In order to teach the pandas, the keepers will sometimes demonstrate the moves themselves, or resort to other tricks.
"For example, we put food in front of the panda as bait and lure him to lie on his stomach, or make it very easy for him to get food lying down," said Wang. The moves have to be reinforced repeatedly in order to stick.
During mating and breeding seasons, the keepers carefully note down the physiological signs so that researchers know when to let the pandas mate or when they might go into labor. When the cubs are born, it is the keepers who approach the mother pandas to take the cubs away from them, so that researchers can examine and feed the babies in the nursery.
Usually a quiet man, Wang talks at speed about the pandas and his face erupts in a radiant smile. He can easily recognize all of the dozen pandas he looks after.
"The panda will be nibbling on bamboo, and when he hears you, he will stop eating, ears pricking up, and turn his head," said Wang, mimicking how the panda jerks his head.
When keepers throw food into the panda's mouth, the panda won't shut his mouth until he feels he's got enough, interjected Cheng Yanxi, who has been a vet with the center for nine years.
"They are very smart, and funny," said Wang, who seemed to be amused by every detail of his interaction with the giant pandas.
"For example the baby panda knows we are looking for him, so he hides in the tree, while the mother is keeping an eye on us in case we might harm to the baby," Wang said, still smiling.
Although they get close as possible with the pandas, life as a keeper can be rather boring.
Wang and a couple of his co-workers usually sit in the monitor room staring at the screens and taking notes. In other times they just sit in silence by the stove that keeps them warm.
"We just sit there staring at each other not knowing what to do or say," said Wang. "Or we give each other a cigarette from time to time and smoke."
"We live a simple life," said Cheng.
The work is rather repetitive, Wang said, and they have to find ways to entertain themselves. "I grew a small patch of vegetables near the base just to keep myself busy," he said.
When friends find out he's a panda keeper, they sound envious. "They tell me it sounds adorable, and ask me to take them to see the pandas," said Wang. "So I feel pretty good about my job."