Zoo Atlanta giant panda celebrates birthday with unusual item

ATLANTA — It was party time at Zoo Atlanta on Wednesday. Yang Yang the giant panda turned 23.

In celebration of the panda patriarch, the Giant Panda Care Team created a large ice cake filled with bamboo leaves. It was scented with Yang Yang’s two favorite scents: Tabasco and Listerine. That’s the same Listerine used as mouthwash. Giant pandas are very scent-oriented, so scent enrichment is something they enjoy. The team offers various scents, all preapproved as safe by the veterinary team, and the pandas all have their favorites. Yang Yang’s favorite is Tabasco, and Listerine is his second-favorite.

Other panda-perfect prizes included two smaller ice treats shaped into the numerals 2 and 3; a “candle” made of sugar cane and topped with sweet potatoes; and a birthday box full of leafeater biscuits.

Yang Yang’s birthday marks the tail end of giant panda birthday season at Zoo Atlanta, concluding two weeks of celebrations for the black-and-white bears. Yang Yang’s female counterpart, Lun Lun, turned 23 on Aug. 25, and his twin daughters, Ya Lun and Xi Lun, turned 4 on Sept. 3.

Zoo Atlanta is one of only three zoos in the U.S. to house giant pandas, which are important ambassadors for a species that faces numerous threats in the wild, despite its high profile. Fewer than 1,900 giant pandas are estimated to remain in the wild in China’s Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. Of these, more than 1,200 live inside nature reserves, and eight of these reserves have been supported by Zoo Atlanta. Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature downgraded the species' status from endangered to vulnerable in 2016, giant pandas remain heavily reliant on conservation programs. Their threats include habitat fragmentation and habitat loss as a result of deforestation and other human activities.

Zoo Atlanta has contributed well over $10 million in support of wild giant pandas in China and has provided support for reforestation projects, conservation education programs, giant panda nurseries, and field research programs and supplies.

While Yang Yang’s birthday celebration was aired virtually this year, Zoo Atlanta is open daily with new protocols and procedures in place to promote wellness and prevent the spread of COVID-19. These include timed ticketing, tickets required to be purchased online in advance, a one-way experience through the zoo; hand-sanitizing stations throughout the grounds, and signage and other aids to encourage social distancing. Masks are currently required for general admission for all guests over the age of 10.