Forced Baby Panda Separation From Mom Is Latest Zoo Cruelty Controversy

Forced Baby Panda Separation From Mom Is Latest Zoo Cruelty Controversy

Is conservation of endangered species in zoos more about publicity and visitors than species survival? Numerous organizations have studied conditions at zoos and concluded that captive animals do not live happy or healthy lives.

PETA, Captive Animals, Global Animal, Animals Australia, Huffington Post, Slate, Vegan Peace, and many other organizations and publications have researched the practices of zoos and concluded that the facilities are inhumane and exploitative.

Tigers and lions have around 18,000 times less space in zoos than they would in the wild. Polar bears have one million times less space. Sadly, they suffer when trained to perform tricks. They exhibit stereotypic behavior called Zoochosis, which consists of pacing, scratching, or engaging in some other nonfunctional activity repeatedly because of boredom and anxiety.

Zoo animals have higher mortality rates than their non-captive counterparts. Worse yet, some zoos murder surplus or hybrid animals simply because they don’t need or want them. Another horrible discovery was that some United Kingdom zoos supply animals to circuses.

One more stain on the reputation of zoos is that they still kidnap animals from the wild. It’s tragic enough that zoo animals are bred in captivity and never know freedom, but families are still being torn apart by zoo animal suppliers stealing animals from jungles and other natural habitats.

A very recent incident under scrutiny by zoo critics and animal lovers alike is the treatment of pandas at The Smithsonian National Zoo (SNZ) in Washington D.C.  They “borrowed” two giant pandas from China in 2000 — Mei Xiang, a female, and Tian Tian, a male — with the intention of breeding them. Pandas draw huge crowds, and zoos profit immensely from cub births via visitors, merchandise sales, donations, even food concessions, and more.

Mei has been pregnant nine times, and only three of her six cubs survived. Their “panda cam” showed that rather than in a natural environment, she gave birth in a tiny cage where she couldn’t even stretch her legs out completely. On the occasions when she has delivered a cub, the “panda team” grabbed the baby immediately for “evaluation” and bottle-feeding. The cubs were posed for cameras soon after departing the womb.

Mei gave birth to Bei Bei in August of 2015.  Fans who watched the “panda cam” (which films the pandas 24 hours every day) saw that Bei was blissful with his mom. He hugged her constantly. They were joyful, and lovingly played together. Mother and son stared at each other affectionately. But Bei was forcibly removed from his mom when he was just eighteen months old.

Dr. Kati Loeffler, Veterinarian, DVM, PHD. Former Director of Animal Health, Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, China expressed concern that Mei was not ready to wean Bei. She urged the zoo to “Reunite mother and cub, and allow them to manage their separation on their own terms, at their own rate.”

Dr. Loeffler also stated that, “Subjecting these animals to unnecessary distress for human imperatives is unethical and vastly disappointing for an institution of The Smithsonian’s status.”

Upon separation, both pandas stopped eating, were visibly depressed, paced, and engaged in other stereotypic behaviors. Videos show Bei sitting in a small enclosure looking bored and lonely. He’s bleating loudly to send a signal of distress to his mom. Bei has been waiting for Mei by the door to the yard. He repeatedly climbs a tree to look for his mom, and has fallen out of it three times when climbing out on the limbs for a better view. Once, he was stunned and couldn’t get up immediately. When Bei tries to scale the wall between him and his mother, he is repeatedly shocked with electric wires, The zoo staff has also sprayed him with a mystery substance that scared him.

Bei reportedly appears depressed, paces the yard aimlessly, climbs trees (especially the one that has a view of his mom’s yard), sits by the fence closest to her yard (rain or shine), and sits by the door that leads to a small birth room that is part of Mei’s enclosure.

Bei is inside in a medium-size enclosure most of the day, except when he is let out into the yard. He has no interaction with any keepers inside the enclosure or in the yard.

Mei also shows signs of distress. She is ramming her head against the wall trying to get to her baby, who was still nursing when taken away. She vocalizes to him and stares at the barrier between them. Neither mom nor son has had any social interaction since their separation in February 2017. Bei’s personality has reportedly changed from a rambunctious cub to a listless and depressed one.

PETA has long claimed that Smithsonian’s animals are not treated well, and voiced its apprehension that the pandas are mistreated in the name of breeding. The artificial insemination (AI) process to get Mei pregnant is unnatural and invasive; when Mei appears to be going into heat, her vagina is swabbed and she endures prodding and an ovulation test. The male is anesthetized and electro-ejaculated (a probe is slipped into his rectum and electrical stimulations cause ejaculation). Then Mei is artificially impregnated with semen from more than one male (probably about as pleasant for her as it would be for a human woman).

There is no mention of the need to forcefully separate a cub from mother Mei anywhere in the panda loan contract signed between the zoo and China authorities. Experts in panda conservation, through education and experience, have spoken against the zoo over Mei and Bei’s separation. In addition, the zoo has a record of ignoring suggestions from China. For instance, they continued to feed ice treats to Mei’s first cub Tai Shan, whose health suffered into his adulthood from it.

“The U.S. MUST set the best example of humane care of all species, this demonstrates blatant disregard for the natural history and sentience of one of the most public and beloved species on Earth. With giant pandas we have the largest reach to teach the public how to care properly for animals in our care. Allow Mei Xiang and Bei Bei to separate at the right time for them” said Dr. Sarah Bexell, Director of Conservation Education at Chengdu Panda research base in China.

Mei is almost nineteen years old and nearly out of the cub bearing age range. The panda team wants Mei to stop lactating so they can impregnate her again. Stealing Bei away from Mei, whom she was still nursing the very night before separation, to force estrus demonstrates that the zoo considers her a breeding machine.

The National Zoo once intended to send Mei and the adult male panda, Tian, back to China in exchange for a more fertile set of pandas. This changed with the arrival of Bao Bao, followed by the current cub, Bei. Bao was also removed from Mei’s enclosure when the zoo decided it was time to wean, rather than when the pandas seemed to be spending less time together and reducing nursing sessions. Bao, born before Bei, was sent to China six months ahead of time so Bei could inhabit her yard.

A visitor to the zoo who witnessed distress of Mei and Bei upon separation started this petition on urging the zoo to allow Bei to live with his mother until he is ready to be fully weaned. As of this writing, it has more than 3,200 signatures.

Indeed, the entire traditional zoo concept seems ill-conceived and cruel. Children visiting zoos are learning that it’s alright to imprison wild animals for their entire lives just for a few moments of our viewing pleasure. A zoo model like that of the Lehe Ledu Wildlife Zoo in China, where animals roam free and visitors are in a moving enclosure, is much more natural and humane. Now that we are aware of the suffering in zoos, it is time to eliminate these facilities or change our current zoo model into a more humane experience for the animals.

UPDATE – as of May 26, 2017, the petition has reached about 10,000 signatures. Concerned petition signers Michelle Schmitt-DeBonis and Maria Wilkar have expressed additional concerns of Bei repeatedly falling, and Mei vomiting and showing other signs of illness (as well as the presence of a snake in her area, which Schmitt-DeBonis says was ignored by the zoo even after she called them about it — see video below). The National Zoo reports that Mei has been artificially inseminated once again — another concern of Schmitt-DeBonis and Wilkar, who question the humaneness of this practice.

Note: Please keep comments peaceful and family friendly.

Join the Conversation


  1. Dawn Spencer

    Please humans, show some mercy and compassion….

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  2. David waldman

    Babies should not be separated from their mothers until the mother rejects the baby, which is normal in the wild. Doing otherwise is cruel and stupid.

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  3. Timothy Burton

    One is, sadly, used to seeing reports of casual cruelty to animals by the ignorant. It is all the more distressing to read reports of cruelty by those who should be at the forefront of animal care and welfare.

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  4. Rosie

    As a child once said to me “zoos are a jail for animals”. Our of the mouths of babes…..!!!!

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  5. Ladyjoy 180

    SNZ and other zoo’s must end Forcibly and unnatural weaning practice. Let the mother and cub live quite happily together and allow them both to decide their separation at their own time. Stop animal cruelty . All zoo’s and human must respect Animals right.

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  6. Ladyjoy

    SNZ and all the Zoo’s must stop forcibly and unnatural weaning. Let the mother and cub live quite happily together. Let them both decide their own natural separation at their own time. Stop animal cruelty. Respect Animals Right.

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  7. Linda Redding

    Thank you for being a voice for animals around the world and specifically for Bei Bei and Mei Xiang. Despite pleas from all over the world, SNZ refused to rectify this tragic situation that they have created by separating Bei and Mei. It is heart breaking to watch the panda cams. Bei Bei is clearly lost, lonely, confused and bored. Mei is a frantic mother. Bei Bei was once a quirky, fun loving little guy. Now he just eats, sleeps and tries to climb out of his enclosure to get back to his mother. The zoo has no respect for these two. They have placed Bei Bei into forces isolation. They have no interaction with him. He is locked inside for hours each day with nothing but too much bamboo and those occasional ice treats that are detrimental to his health. We are pleading with SNZ to right this wrong. They have no compassion or conscience and these pandas should be removed from their care.

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  8. Bjb

    Unfortunately, this is old news. The video reported is from the week after they were separated and the behavior was completely expected by the zoo. This is not the first cub Mei has weaned. Bei Bei and his mother no longer call to or look for each other. The National Zoo has already stated they will do nothing to reunite mother and son because it would be too dangerous for both. Anyone who follows the panda cam has seen a very happy cub and content mother. Those who continue to post this misinformation are misleading others.

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    • Debra

      The fact that it is old news doesn’t change the fact that is still and is still happening to these poor animals. These people seem to care more about the notoriaty and the money that this will bring to them. These idiots care nothing about what is right. I could personally wring each and everyone of their necks for causing distress to these beautiful animals, and that goes for all animals. There was always a reason why I didn’t like or go to zoos or circuses. My big prayer is that people would stop going to zoos, circuses and any other shows that forces animals to perform so that humans can get a laugh and be entertained. My heart goes out to all animals and that humans can leave them alone to live their lives as it was meant to be. People are so dam unbelievable! IN ANY COUNTRY!

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      • jeff smith

        I agree with everything you said, Debra
        Poor cub is still suffering. I went to the Zoo on May 29th, Yes to this shameless Zoo, to check on Pandas. Little BeiBei is emotionally and mentally, damaged. The Zoo has artificially inseminated this 19 years old panda mother not once but twice within 10 hours, So they can squeeze one more cub out of her. New cub means new endorsements, those brings more money. Please share this with your family and friends. This EVIL Zoo should be punished for the sins they are committing in the name of conservation.
        As for poster ‘Bjb’, She is known paid Zoo supporter who is all over the internet, Posting lies to cover up this shady Zoo.

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  9. Erie

    I salute you Lady Freethinker for writing about this suffering cub and his grieving mother.
    What a shameful act done by Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
    There is no ending to human greed and this is the example.
    Reunite the cub with his mother.

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  10. LadyjoY

    In contratry about the statement that The video reported is from the week after they were separated and the behavior was completely expected by the zoo. This is not the first cub Mei has weaned. Bei Bei and his mother no longer call to or look for each other. After how many months after the separation both mother and cub continously pacing he yard. It is undeniable after months of separation both mother and cub still looking for each other. People around the world are waiting eagerly that Mei Xiang and Bei Bei will be reunited. Look at these videos, Bei Bei continously looking for his mother after months of separation. Poor Bei Bei, Frustrated and wanted to see his mother Mei Xiang for celebrating Mother’s day 🙁

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  11. ladyjoy

    I do not understand why some people are suppressing the reunion of Mei Xiang and Bei Bei and what they want to achieve.? Why they do not want to let them both live quite happily together.? SNZ are continously denial and c stating a sugar coated stories in order that their reputation look nice and to look Bei Bei is settled, happy and weaned successfully. But, the cameras can not hide the truth and say it all the entire opposite stories regarding their sugar coated statements. Until now the mother and cub still facing the yards and longing each other for companion. As you can see compared with other zoo’s how they treated well their pandas. How they fed panda cubs with bottled milk, hand feed with love and playful interactions to build trust. They let also the mother to decide and wean naturally her cub at their own time. These animal cruelty, abuse, unnatural and forcibly weaning practice, not only in SNZ but all zoo’s must end . It is vital that we need to choose and cultivate compassion over profit. All human being and all the Zoo’s must respect the Animal rights.

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  12. ladyjoy

    Thank you so much ladyfreethinker for taking your time and giving your attention with regards to this issue. I hope you will continue voicing for animals. Animals can not speak for them selves and they need our voice. SNZ must change and upgrade their old and rotten research and studies. It is not too late to correct and fix it. This will be a great challenge to SNZ and prove that your institution is a leader for animal care and conservation biology.

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  13. PAT


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  14. marycatherine nolan

    HAVE THESE PEOPLE LOST THEIR MINDS. Were the zoo keepers and the people who oversee the zoos; taken away from their mothers at an early age???? I doubt it, I seriously doubt it. Who lets this cruelty continue. These people at the zoos are without an ounce of humanity to do this to the pandas. I’m horrified at this type of cruelty.

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  15. Teresa Gwyn

    Stop separating babies from mamas it unnecessarily cruel

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  16. Dawn Spencer

    Sociopathic, Psychopathic behavior shameful. Someone please step in and do the honorable thing and reunite mother and child.

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  17. Robert

    Where’s the petition for me to sign??

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  18. MS

    The care & protection of these animals MUST top your priority list ALWAYS — ensure these wonderful pandas are happy, healthy & comfy — everything else on your agenda is second in importance. — When you do RIGHT by these animals, everything else GOOD will follow.

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  19. Debra

    These peoples and all of these institutions dealing with these animals are in it for the money only. I don’t think they care one bit about what these animals have to go through. It’s truly disgusting that that’s what human compassion has come to especially towards all the innocent animals that have to suffer and live a life that is not natural to them at the hands of humans. I pray that people would finally get the message and realize that zoos and circuses are not what people think they are suppose to be and stop going to them. I don’t go to them and never will. It’s really a shame and heartbreaking that these people feel it is alright to treat animals the way they do. To me, those people are criminals that should be prosecuted. All the public sees is a cute baby panda not knowing the heartache and distress it and his mother is going through and that the zoo is forcing it to go through. Hope your babies are never taken from you.

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  20. Ellen McConnell

    This is a DISGRACE!!! Shame on our National Zoo! That baby & mother should be reunited!!

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  21. The EdUCATOR

    You’re not a “freethinker”, you’re retarded. You know nothing about rearing pandas. All these “cruel practices” you mentioned are necessary in order for the cubs to survive.

    Reply Report comment
  22. Dawn Spencer

    Just erroneously clicked on delete subscription. Please reinstate my membership if have indeed unsubscribed to this wonderful wonderful site. Keep up the excellent work.

    Reply Report comment

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