The Korea Herald


[LLG] How 'panda aunt' almost did not fall for cub's charms

By Song Seung-hyun

Published : Feb. 21, 2024 - 15:18

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Zookeeper Oh Seung-hee at Everland’s Panda World, is seen with twin panda cubs Hui Bao and Rui Bao. (Everland) Zookeeper Oh Seung-hee at Everland’s Panda World, is seen with twin panda cubs Hui Bao and Rui Bao. (Everland)

"People rave about Fu Bao. I just didn't get it."

Zookeeper Oh Seung-hee of Everland’s Panda World said of the rock star giant panda of her zoo.

Fu Bao, born in 2020 to a panda pair gifted to Korea by China in 2016, was the first cub born in Korea through natural breeding.

From the moment of her birth, there hasn't been a single day when the baby panda wasn't popular, with fans who just cannot get enough of the cuddly cub.

However, Oh had no problem maintaining distance from the panda sensation.

"I even worried that something was wrong with me, and I questioned my emotional capacity," she added.

Zookeeper Oh Seung-hee at Everland’s Panda World, is seen with twin panda cubs Hui Bao and Rui Bao. (Everland) Zookeeper Oh Seung-hee at Everland’s Panda World, is seen with twin panda cubs Hui Bao and Rui Bao. (Everland)

Panda auntie and Fu Bao

Oh was caring for the red pandas when Fu Bao was born, requiring her to stay away from the infant panda to eliminate any chance of disease being transferred across enclosures.

"I was considered more dangerous than outsiders," Oh said during her interview with The Korea Herald on Feb. 2.

When Fu Bao reached around seven months old, Oh was finally allowed to get close to the star panda. But the emotional distance still lingered, partially due to her new task being irrelevant to Fu Bao.

"Even after I was moved to take care of the giant pandas, my primary responsibility was Le Bao, Fu Bao's father," she said.

Oh, 32, now fondly referred to as the "panda auntie" at Everland's Panda World, was initially a dog handler at Everland.

Her transfer to Panda World was because of the arrival of Fu Bao. An extra hand was needed at Panda World as veteran zookeepers — Kang Cheol-won and Song Young-kwan, now known as Fu Bao's “grandpas” — had to tend to the newborn cub.

Her initial indifference to Fu Bao, however, has shifted in the past few months, with Fu Bao's increased interaction with caretakers including Oh.

Fu Bao is scheduled to relocate to China in April, as per an international agreement. Ahead of the transfer, she will have to be kept in a separate space for a month, as required by international regulations for wild animals. In preparation for this, Fu Bao is spending more and more time indoors.

"As I spend more time with her, I learn that Fu Bao is an exceptionally affectionate panda," said Oh.

She shared that every morning, Fu Bao approaches Oh first — unlike other pandas — and rubs up against her.

"When she does this," Oh admitted, "I think, 'Why are you doing this to me? I want to smile when I have to say goodbye to you.'"

Zookeeper Oh Seung-hee, affectionately known as the Zookeeper Oh Seung-hee, affectionately known as the "panda auntie" at Everland’s Panda World, poses with a stuffed panda toy before an interview with The Korea Herald. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

From farm girl to panda whisperer

Oh's love for animals blossomed naturally.

She grew up on her grandfather's cow farm in Mugapli, Gyeonggi Province, surrounded by creatures, naturally fostering bonds and a desire to work with animals professionally.

Her childhood brims with memories of daily interactions with cows, dogs and chickens. "I'd wake up at dawn to feed them," she recalled.

Departing the farm and its animals during her middle school years created a void in her life.

"I begged for a dog," she said, "but my dad said 'No.'"

Oh felt sad that he didn't share her affection for animals.

She found some comfort on Sunday mornings when she would watch SBS's "TV Animal Farm,” which often featured the animals and zookeepers of Everland. This led her to dream that she would one day become a zookeeper herself.

Oh attended Shingu University's Nature and Animal Department, now known as the Companion Animal Department, and upon completing her studies, began taking on various jobs caring for dogs. In 2017, she got a chance to work at Everland as a carer for guide dogs.

Three years later, a temporary zookeeper position opened up at Everland’s Panda World.

Panda World didn't actually need an additional zookeeper at that time, Oh explained.

Her hiring was contingent on the successful outcome of the panda breeding program.

“There was a chance Ai Bao was pregnant. If a cub were to be born, they would need someone new," she said.

Determining whether a panda is pregnant is a difficult task, with pregnancies often only being confirmed close to birth. Hormone testing isn't very accurate either.

"I remember praying every day," Oh said, "hoping the new panda would be born so I could continue working at Panda World."

Her prayers were answered on July 20, 2020, with the birth of Fu Bao.

Now, Oh is one of the most well-known zookeepers at Panda World.

On Feb. 2, as Oh entered Panda World, people started gathering around her asking for autographs and photos.

Her yellow hair clip, now one of her trademarks, was originally a practical solution for the frequent hair mishaps she experienced while caring for the pandas, she disclosed.

Oh used to have bangs, which she said would become oily and wet when she washed the bamboo for the pandas to eat. Colleagues affectionately said her hair was proof that she lost another fight with the bamboo.

"Now I no longer have bangs, but I continue to wear (the clip) because, when I didn't, people asked why I wasn't wearing one,” she said.

Life lessons from pandas

Oh's popularity soared with viral videos featuring the mischievous twin pandas, Hui Bao and Rui Bao, playfully tumbling around Oh's legs. The twins are sisters of Fu Bao, born to the Le Bao-Ai Bao pair in 2023.

When discussing the video, Oh shared that, during her time as a panda carer, she learned that baby pandas can be extremely shy in front of unfamiliar faces.

Initially, she thought the cubs would greet anyone in the uniform, just like puppies do. "But the twins displayed clear avoidance behaviors toward a (newly-hired, part-time) zookeeper they didn't know well," she said.

Caring for pandas for four years now, Oh says she has learned a lot, both personally and professionally.

From Le Bao, the father panda at Everland and the first she cared for, she learned the "importance of persistence."

Initially, Le Bao would blatantly ignore her.

"Pandas are as intelligent as a 4- to 5-year-old (human)," she said. "I knew he heard me, but he chose not to respond."

The panda even attempted dominance displays by standing tall and slamming its body down to startle her.

Senior zookeepers advised her to "remain calm and unfazed."

Following their guidance, she persevered for over six months until earning Le Bao's complete trust.

"He trusts me now," she said, "responding to my calls significantly faster."

Oh also shared a fun fact about pandas for visitors who might find their constant napping disappointing.

While clarifying that their diet, originally carnivorous, now consists mainly of bamboo, she explained, "Their digestive system can't utilize 90 percent of the bamboo they ingest. So they maintain their health by minimizing movement, focusing on eating and sleeping.”

Standing for living, loving and growing, LLG goes beyond the realm of daily news, exploring the vibrant tapestry of modern life, as told by real people. -- Ed.