The city has been anxiously awaiting the arrival of giant pandas Er Shun and Da Mao and their cubs, Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue (the first giant pandas to be born in Canada!) for years. Construction on the new Panda Passage, which was transformed from the former Eurasian Gateway building into the new habitat for the pandas, began in 2016. The pandas are finally here, and the Calgary Zoo is coming up with creative ways to introduce visitors to them, including a breakfast experience that not only allows you to bypass the lineups, you get fed well first.
The Panda Breakfast Experience
My husband, son, and I headed to St. George’s Island to attend the Panda Breakfast on a sunny Sunday, arriving at the zoo at 7:30—particularly easy during the summer months, when it’s light so early—and it was so nice to arrive well before the crowds. The morning schedule looks something like this:
7:30 a.m. Arrive at the Zoo
7:45 a.m. Welcome and safety talk
7:55 a.m. Breakfast buffet
7:55 a.m. Touch table with Panda biofacts
8:30 a.m. Staggered group tours
9:15 a.m. Explore the rest of the zoo
Attendees are ushered toward the barbecue tent in the middle of the Zoo, across from the Panda Passage, for a full buffet breakfast before meeting our newest visitors. Upon arrival at the tent, after passing a family of camels and pausing to take photos of brilliant pink flamingos in the morning light, everyone is given a lanyard with a time on it—8:30, 8:45 and such—to facilitate an even flow from breakfast to the habitat. Although it was a busy Sunday morning, it didn’t feel crowded or rushed.
The Breakfast Buffet
My 12 year old is a fan of breakfast buffets, and this particular spread did not disappoint! Scrambled eggs, bacon, ham, Spolumbo’s maple blueberry sausages, house-made scones, pastries, buttermilk pancakes with berry compote, yogurt and granola and platters of fresh fruit—and all the accompaniments, with compostable plates and cutlery.
As we ate, a zoo educator gave a talk about the pandas and the endangered species in general; what they eat (mostly bamboo—about 40 kg per day for the family of four—and they produce about as much poop), their habits and the requirements of their care. A touch table allowed excited kids to explore artifacts—not only related to pandas, but other endangered species and the 11 conservation research programs the Calgary Zoo is involved in worldwide, from the Weichau Community Hippo Sanctuary in northwestern Ghana to whooping cranes (the Calgary Zoo is the only facility in Canada that breeds them for release back into the wild).
Long tables provided the opportunity to meet some of our fellow panda enthusiasts, and we loaded up on coffee before heading across the dewy morning grass to meet Er Shun, Da Mao and their cubs.
Meeting the Pandas
The Panda Passage enclosure itself is stunning—431 square metres of lush habitats and 1,512 square meters outdoors, with plants, trees, rocks, and a waterfall. The whole enclosure is open and easy to view; even when it’s crowded, it’s easy to see the pandas munching their bamboo, which is gathered from the mountainous regions of the Sichuan province in China and shipped twice a week on existing direct Hainan Airlines commercial flights to Calgary. It’s interesting to learn that while the pandas are carnivores, they have adapted to a diet of almost exclusively bamboo, which they must eat virtually all day long in order to extract sufficient nutrients. We learned that this, by extension, is why baby pandas are so tiny—they’re about 100 g at birth, because it’s difficult for the mother to nutritionally sustain them. Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue were born in Toronto—here’s hoping we see the birth of more new cubs during their visit in Calgary!
There’s plenty of space in the new enclosure to watch the pandas wander, eat and play, and the komodo dragons got some attention as well. We wandered to the outside part of the enclosure to watch the cubs roam, and hear more from zookeepers about their species and care, and the recent stand-off between the cubs and a couple Canada geese who wanted to nest in the outdoor enclosure.
With so much room to wander, it never felt crowded—the Zoo has done a fantastic job of anticipating large crowds, with free timed tickets that allow visitors to schedule a time to see the giant pandas and avoid lineups (available both online and at the zoo). They also have daily online discounts and have introduced variable pricing, reducing prices on weekdays to encourage people to come to the Zoo when it’s not as busy.
Exploring the Calgary Zoo
With over 900 animals, six acres of botanical gardens, the Prehistoric Park, and Canadian Wilds, there was plenty to explore after breakfast. We funnelled through the gift shop (warning parents of stuffy-loving kids: there are adorable ones here) and headed off to visit the hippos and giraffes, lemurs and penguins, and to get some famous zoo ice cream—the best soft serve in the city.
All in all a great day—and a perfect, stress-free way to get to spend some quality time with the visiting pandas.