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‘I Get to Hug Them All the Time.’ What It’s Like to Take Care of a Pair of History-Making Panda Cubs

4 minute read

Huang Shunjie might just have the best job in the world. The 24-year-old spends each day caring for 18 panda cubs at the Giant Panda Protection and Research Center outside China’s central city of Chengdu. He prepares their meals of bamboo and milk formula, checks on their growth and health, and carries these two-tone fluff-balls between their sleeping pens and the cooing of their public enclosure.

“The best part is that I can get very close to the baby pandas, which makes many people jealous,” he says. “I get to hug them all the time.”

Among the brood are two record-breaking recent additions. He-He and Mei-Mei — a brother and sister whose names translate as “harmony” and “happiness” respectively — celebrated their first birthdays on July 25 as the only twin pandas born from a wild father and captive mother. It’s a vital breakthrough that broadens the genetic pool and thus longterm sustainability for the bears, which were among the world’s most threatened animals until recently.

“Mei-Mei is very cute and clingy,” says Huang, a native of Sichuan province who graduated in construction engineering before finding work as a panda photographer and then zookeeper. “But her brother is very naughty. He is one of the wild kids and loves making trouble.”

There are, of course, downsides to any job. In Huang’s case, it’s the regular bites and scratches he receives from 45-55 pound bears still exploring their own strength — as well as the lingering pong of panda poo. But it’s a small price to pay to dote daily on these epitomes of roly-poly cuteness up close. Every shift is a succession of tumbling off toys, balancing on heads, or generally lolloping around like furry toddlers.

“I’m a full-time daddy for these fluffy baby pandas,” says Huang. “If I take some days off to go home, I feel empty inside. If I can’t hear them bleating, if I can’t see them, it feels like life is not real.”

For many years, giant pandas, which are native to China, were one of the world’s most endangered creatures as unbridled development decimated their natural habitats in bamboo forests. These famous vegetarians must eat 30 to 85 pounds of bamboo every day.

But population numbers have recovered in recent years thanks to intensive breeding programs using artificial insemination. In 2016, pandas were downgraded by the International Union for Conservation of Nature from “endangered” to the less acute “vulnerable” category. Today, there are 1,864 pandas in the wild up from only 1,114 in the 1970s, according to China’s State Forestry and Grassland Administration, two-thirds of which live across 67 dedicated nature reserves.

Swelling numbers have also allowed China to send more pandas overseas, earning Beijing soft power points. “Panda diplomacy” began in the 7th century when China’s Tang dynasty Empress Wu Zetian dispatched a pair of pandas to Emperor Tenmu of Japan. Today, over 50 pandas live in 18 different countries.

Most famously, Mao Zedong sent a pair of pandas — Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing — to the U.S. following Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. More recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping presented his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin with two pandas for Moscow Zoo just last month. “When we talk about pandas, we always end up with a smile on our faces,” Putin said.

Panda diplomacy is typically a 10-year loan, costing the host nation some $1 million annually, with the proviso that any offspring remain the property of the People’s Republic. The loans often coincide with trade deals but, if bilateral relations deteriorate, don’t expect these ambassadors to stick around. In 2013, China threatened to reclaim pandas lent to Austria after Vienna welcomed the Dalai Lama.

The vicissitudes of geopolitics are of little concern to Huang, though. His greatest joy comes from the fact the pandas he cares for end up raising environmental awareness and bringing joy to millions of adults and children around the globe. “I’m really proud of that,” he says.

—With reporting and video by Zhang Chi/Chengdu

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Write to Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com