What Giant Pandas Taught Me About Parenting

When animal keeper Nicole MacCorkle became a parent, she looked to Bao Bao’s mother for inspiration

Nicole and Bao Bao 2
Nicole MacCorkle, a giant panda keeper at Smithsonian's National Zoo, says the animals have taught her about parenting. Connor Mallon, Smithsonian's National Zoo

If you had told me years ago that I would spend my days working with giant pandas, let alone be the senior giant panda keeper at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, I would have laughed in your face. But as recently as 10 years ago, even more unlikely to me was the notion that I would become a mom. “My work is really exhausting, and that’s why I don’t have children,” I told my college’s alumni newsletter in 2006. But in 2011, my daughter, Chloe, was born, and I realized just how much my 17 years of animal keeping and training would come in handy. It turned out that the skills that made me a good animal keeper, which the animals helped me develop over the years, went a long way in learning how to care for a growing human. Below are some of the things I've learned.

Keep Your Expectations Realistic

Even before she was born, I knew my daughter would be a rambunctious child. A friend of mine had described pregnancy as feeling like butterflies tickling the inside of her stomach. For me, it felt more like a hamster running on a wheel. The Christmas before Chloe was born, she kicked me so hard that the force sent a package that had been in my lap to the floor. After she was born and as she’s gotten older, that energy has continued, and it wouldn’t be fair to expect her to act in a way that doesn’t fit with her personality. It’s the same with animals. Adult giant pandas, for example, are low-energy animals, so I wouldn’t expect them to do much more than eating and sleeping and rolling down the hill on snowy mornings.

Hold Your Newborn as Much as Possible

During the first few weeks after giving birth to Bao Bao, Mei Xiang rarely, if ever, put her cub down. Later, when Bao Bao was older and her mother would leave the nest to go eat, Mei Xiang always made a hasty retreat back if she heard her cub crying. If I hear a distress call from any of the animals in my care, I too always go to investigate and try to remedy the situation.

I do the same with my daughter. For the first several months of her life, my daughter was rarely put down during the day. She was almost always in direct contact with someone—her caregiver, my husband, or me. We were fortunate that family friends and my parents were available to care for her while my husband and I were at work. And while critics suggested this parenting style would make my daughter clingy, just the opposite has proven true. When someone tries to assist her with a task, she more often than not states firmly, “No, I do it!” Now nearly four years old, she is developing quite an independent streak.

Sleep When Your Baby Sleeps

Most new parents hear this pearl of wisdom, but I had seen it firsthand at the Zoo. Years before I became a mother, I witnessed Mandara, a gorilla, bring her newborn to the mesh area where several keepers and I were hoping to get a glimpse of the sleeping baby. After we admired the baby, oohing and ahhing, Mandara returned to a favorite resting spot and fell asleep sitting up. She was sleeping while her baby was sleeping. Now, even as my daughter gets older, her naptime becomes my opportunity to recharge. I spend that time reading books that aren’t about parenting or pandas, or catching up on TV or Facebook. Whatever the activity, I make sure it’s something that I want to do, not something I feel I need to do. It is my “me” time.

You Can’t Prevent Every Fall

Bao Bao’s mother, Mei Xiang, is a wonderful example of how giant panda moms should behave, giving all of the care and attention necessary to raise a cub. With Bao Bao, however, her second cub, it seems that Mei Xiang is more relaxed. My heart skips a beat when I witness Bao Bao fall from trees or rocks in her enclosure. But I know—and Mei Xiang seems to realize too—that each fall improves Bao Bao's climbing ability, as she learns what not to do next time. In fact, giant panda cubs have natural padding that protects them from injury. After a fall, Mei Xiang always goes to check on Bao Bao, and from a distance I do as well.

Mei Xiang taught me that it’s better to step aside and let my daughter explore the world at her own pace. I try to relax and stop worrying, though I’ll admit that I can be a bit of a helicopter parent. Chloe is a daredevil; she likes to play hard and fast. Now that she’s learning to ride a bike, I make sure she’s wearing her helmet and knee pads (her natural padding isn’t quite as thick as Bao Bao’s) and I run alongside her as she rides. Hopefully she won’t have too many falls as she transitions to two wheels, but just like it is for pandas, I know that falling is part of the learning process, and I will be right there with her to comfort her when she takes a tumble. 

MacCorkle says that 10 years ago she had no plans to become a mother. Her daughter, Chloe, shown here in 2014 near Bao Bao's enclosure, is almost four years old. Nicole MacCorkle
MacCorkle says that she learned from Bao Bao's mother, Mei Xiang, shown here with Bao Bao in April 2014. Abby Wood, Smithsonian's National Zoo
From Mandara, a gorilla, MacCorkle learned the importance of resting when your baby rests. Mandara gave birth to this baby in 2008. Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian's National Zoo
When her daughter was born, MacCorkle says, she realized just how many skills she had picked up from the giant pandas. Smithsonian's National Zoo
Nicole MacCorkle, a giant panda keeper at Smithsonian's National Zoo, says the animals have taught her about parenting. Connor Mallon, Smithsonian's National Zoo
Mei Xiang taught her giant panda cubs how to adjust to changes in routine, MacCorkle says. The first cub, Tai Shan, shown here in 2007, moved to China in 2010. Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian's National Zoo

Eat Your Veggies First

Tian Tian, Bao Bao’s father, is not a fan of carrots. They arrive each morning as part of his daily diet and contain important vitamins and fiber, but he doesn’t seem to care. He will only eat them at a certain time each day, and I use that to my advantage. In between his first and second feedings of the day, when he would lead one to believe that he is ready to expire from starvation, then and only then will he willingly consume a carrot, and only if he is briefly under the assumption that there is nothing more palatable available. So each morning when he approaches the keeper area in search of his next feeding, I present him with a carrot, while carefully making sure that any apples or other tasty morsels are out of site. Only after he’s eaten the carrot can he have a yummy apple or even yummier sweet potato. (Interestingly, it seems that Bao Bao may have inherited her father’s dislike for carrots.) Parents can employ the same technique. Chloe is a good eater—like her mother, she rarely comes across food she doesn’t like—but should I ever have to coax her into eating something healthy, I already have a strategy in place thanks to Tian Tian. 

Be Flexible; It’s Ok to Break from Routine

Animal keepers have their preferred individual routines; each brings his or her own style and way of doing things to the job. The animals adapt to their keepers’ unique styles, and can even benefit from the variations in routine. Each day is different and may present a unique set of challenges. At the end of the day, the animals are fed and trained and the enclosures are clean.

Bao Bao’s big brother, Tai Shan, frequently had variations in his routine. The biggest was when he moved from the National Zoo to China in 2010. He was calm and relaxed throughout the entire flight and adapted in China almost instantly. Tai Shan learned to be flexible from Mei Xiang’s calm demeanor. She doesn't let the crowds and camera flashes faze her, and now little Bao Bao reacts with the same confidence.

In my experience, the same holds true in parenting. My daughter’s routine may be slightly different with me than with my husband, and different altogether when Grandma and Grandpa are caring for her. And that’s ok. I recently realized that my daughter naps at my parents’ house at the time she normally eats lunch at our house. But rather than adhere to a rigid schedule, what has worked best for us is having a child who can adjust to slight variations in her routine. That doesn’t mean that every day is a free for all; she still gets three meals a day, a couple of snacks, the proper amount of sleep and is learning the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. But having some wiggle room keeps Chloe from having an all-out meltdown if she’s not eating lunch precisely at noon, or napping from 1 to 3 p.m. 

Letting Go is Never Easy

I had the joy of watching and caring for Tai Shan from his birth in 2005 until his move to China. I was his primary trainer and made it my goal to teach him as much as I could. In return, he taught me to have confidence in my training ability. I escorted him to China, and as hard as it was to say goodbye, I knew that he had the skills to adapt and thrive in his new environment and with his new keepers. I knew his departure would leave a void at our Zoo, but I couldn’t help but be proud of how quickly he was adjusting to his new life. I now know that I’ll experience those feelings all over again when my Chloe leaves the nest. 

The Rewards Far Exceed the Sacrifices

It turns out that I did have something right back in 2006—parenting is exhausting! Thankfully, I’m able to share my job with an animal keeper who is also a mom, so neither of us has to make the all-or-nothing decision between raising a family or caring for the animals that we love so much. I am exhausted when I wake up at 5 a.m. to greet the animals by 6:30, and I am exhausted when I pick up my daughter in the evening, after making sure the pandas’ needs have been met all day. But it’s nothing a quick nap or an extra latte can’t fix, and it is worth the long days and dark circles. I really feel that I am making a difference—in the life of my daughter, in the lives of school kids whom I get to talk to in the panda house each day and in the lives of the precious panda family, whose experiences have been so closely intertwined with mine for over a decade. I have devoted blood, sweat, tears, holidays, weekends and lots of overtime to them, making sure that they are content and cared for. But as it turns out, they have given me so much more.

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