San Diego

‘Era, More or Less, Ended': Former Panda Team Leader at San Diego Zoo Doubts Return of Beloved Animals

From September 1996 to April 2019, the giant pandas were a historic part of the San Diego Zoo

The man previously behind the San Diego Zoo’s famous panda exhibit said he doubts the beloved bears will ever make a return to the city following the zoo’s announcement that its last two giant pandas are headed to China.

Dr. Donald Lindburg represented the San Diego Zoo in negotiations with China that eventually allowed pandas to come to San Diego, becoming one of the first U.S. zoos to house them. He went on to serve as the head of the giant panda team for a decade when the animals first came to the city in September 1996.

Lindburg still remembers the moment Bai Yun arrived at it to her new home.

“She came bounding out of her cage, you know, and she did a summersault on the hillside, and everybody was going, ‘Oooh, aaah,’” he said.

Now, more than two decades later, Lindburg fears it might be the end of an era for the San Diego Zoo.

“I rather doubt that this will happen again,” Lindburg told NBC 7. “It will be difficult to outdo what the pandas have done for us. They were very unique and drew huge crowds -- lots of publicity, lots of financial support. That, I think, is an era, more or less, ended.”

The San Diego Zoo announced that its last two remaining giant pandas will head to China. NBC 7's Melissa Adan has more on why they have to go.

As for a replacement animal to the pandas, Lindburg doesn’t think they can be beat.

“I don’t know if there is another animal that will be adored and loved as much as the pandas were. There might be,” he said. “The pandas have always been popular, and, in fact, if you were to go to the zoo today, you might have to get in line.”

Lindburg said the love for the pandas came from the community following each moment of their journey in San Diego.

“Every step of our work was publicized, the community really supported us, and it was just a wonderful episode in recent years to have all of this happen. It’s sad to me that it’s all going to end,” Lindburg told NBC 7.

Panda Portraits: A Look Back at San Diego's Beloved Bears

Lindburg said San Diego Zoo CEO Douglas Myers put him in charge of the incoming pandas in the 1990s because Lindburg had success getting cheetahs to breed in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

“In a career sense, it couldn’t have been better,” Lindburg said. “Once I was given a position of responsibility, I thought, ‘How lucky can I get?’”

Though, Lindburg said it was a somewhat difficult start with the first two pandas that came to the San Diego Zoo, Bai Yun and Shi Shi.

“When we did get the pair, we were delighted with the female (Bai Yun),” Lindburg said.

However, Lindburg said the male panda, Shi Shi, was “totally disinterested in anything but feeding.” Lindburg noted that Shi Shi was also “very old” when he arrived in San Diego.

The panda expert said he wanted to replace Shi Shi, but the contract between China and the San Diego Zoo said a replacement could only be offered if a panda dies.

With the remaining giant pandas to leave the San Diego Zoo for China, many are wondering how it will impact business. NBC 7's Danny Freeman has more.

“Why don’t we declare him dead?” Lindburg said. During meetings with officials in Beijing, Lindburg brought up this idea to declare Shi Shi dead to provide a second male panda to San Diego.

“They were scratching their heads, laughing a little bit, looking at each other, and finally they said OK,” Lindburg told NBC 7. “That was a big moment for us, you know, that we could count on having a male that knew what he was supposed to do.”

Enter Gao Gao, who would go on to spend more than 14 years at the zoo.

At that time, it showed a growing relationship with China, Lindburg said. Another moment that strengthened their bond, he said, was when the San Diego Zoo developed a formula to help abandoned panda cubs.

When pandas have twins, the mother tends to abandon one, Lindburg told NBC 7. So, to help both cubs survive, the San Diego Zoo developed a formula that would keep baby pandas alive when they’re in the incubator state.

“That changed everything. The Chinese were very happy with us, because they were no longer losing every second twin,” Lindburg said. “It helped greatly to improve our relationship with the Chinese. They realized we were serious.”

On August 21, 1999, Hua Mei was born, marking the first time a panda cub survived in captivity in the U.S. She was the product of artificial insemination between Bai Yun and Shi Shi.

From the NBC 7 Archives, reporter Adam Freed talks with panda expert Donald Lindburg about the birth of a cub who would later be named Hua Mei in 1999. It was the first success of the breeding program in the U.S. aimed at saving the giant panda from extinction. 

“Being the first one, this baby was a real celebrity,” Lindburg said. “The national interest to the birth of the first baby panda in the United States is mind-boggling.”

Since then, the San Diego Zoo saw five more cub births, all born by Bai Yun and Gao Gao. Many of Bai Yun’s cubs only stayed in San Diego’s exhibit for a few years.

Hua Mei stayed for nearly three and a half years, Mei Sheng stayed four years, Su Lin stayed five years, Zhen Zhen stayed three years, and Yun Zi stayed nearly three and a half years.

Xiao Liwu was Bai Yun’s last cub. Born in 2012, Xiao Liwu would have almost been at the San Diego Zoo for seven years, but he and his mother will leave for China at the end of April. They were the last two giant pandas at the zoo.

“It’ll be a sad day when we don’t have pandas anymore,” Lindburg said.

The last day residents and tourists can see the beloved pandas will be April 27.

Contact Us