If you think kids are picky, try feeding a giant panda. It takes four full-time bamboo hunters at Zoo Atlanta to satisfy the palates of the zoo's panda pair, Lun Lun and Yang Yang. And they are not always successful.
The animals' diet consists almost entirely of bamboo, but they will eat only about 20 of the 200 or so species that grow in Georgia. What type they like also varies by the time of year. Sometimes the pandas will eat nothing but one variety for a week, then refuse to eat it anymore. (Sound familiar, parents?)
And the bamboo has to be fresh — the pandas turn up their noses at dry or wilted leaves and discolored stalks.
So the zoo relies on a bamboo hunting team to find and harvest local patches of the plant. The bamboo they collect cannot be grown with pesticides or near polluted waterways. And most important, it must be appetizing to the pandas.
Bamboo grows wild — and fast, like a weed — in many parts of the country. The Atlanta zoo could, of course, grow its own, but that would not be very practical, given the pandas' ever-changing tastes.
"They might eat golden bamboo from Mr. Smith's yard but they won't eat it from Mr. Jones' yard," said Jan Fortune, manager of the zoo's animal nutrition department.
The finicky black-and-white animals are native to China's Sichuan Province. Lun Lun, the female, weighs around 250 pounds; Yang Yang, the male, is closer to 300 pounds. Each panda eats 20 to 30 pounds of bamboo a day. The leaves and stalks account for about 95 percent of their diet. (They also get soy biscuits and apples as treats.)
That means that the bamboo hunters have to haul in about 400 pounds of bamboo each week to provide enough food for the pandas and a few other zoo animals, like the elephants and gorillas, that also eat the plants.
The team works five days a week harvesting bamboo from the yards of homes and businesses on a list of about 1,500 approved donors within 100 miles of Atlanta. Their jobs will get tougher in nine months when the zoo's panda cub Mei Lan, born Sept. 6, moves from Lun Lun's milk to the stalk.
Zoo Atlanta spends $2 million each year on the pandas, which includes the costs of leasing them from the Chinese government and employing the bamboo hunters.
On a recent morning, Zoo Atlanta's bamboo hunters trooped through a wooded lot carrying a saw, a lopper and twine. They sawed, chopped and bundled the long, green stalks with ease and efficiency, filling the back of their truck in a couple of hours.
They brave yellowjackets, wasps, snakes, fire ants, poison ivy and every kind of weather. They have even been chased by a wild boar.
"Sometimes, in the country, people come out with their guns and ask, `What are y'all doing?!'" said Rytis Daujotas, one of the bamboo hunters.
The plants must be free of chemicals, bird droppings or other animal feces, which can be toxic to the pandas. Bamboo grown near a busy road is no good because auto exhaust can contaminate the crop.
And the bamboo team cannot use power tools because any oil or gas residue would poison the pandas. The hand-held saw and lopper are greased with cooking oil after being disinfected every day.
As recently as last year, Zoo Atlanta also relied on a bamboo farm in Savannah operated by the University of Georgia. But the availability of closer sources and the growing cost of hauling the bamboo 250 miles to Atlanta ended that relationship.
Other U.S. zoos with pandas get their bamboo in various ways. The Memphis Zoo has a team that harvests bamboo in the area. The zoo also grows the plant on its own seven-acre bamboo farm.
The San Diego Zoo grows all the bamboo eaten by its three adult pandas. The Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington gets most of its bamboo from a private donor's property in Maryland, but it also is trying to grow some at the zoo.
Since pandas are picky, most zoos have found that growing only one species of bamboo won't cut it. Zoo Atlanta keeps files on what types of bamboo the pandas eat each day, but the animals often change their minds.
"You have to kind of play it by ear," Daujotas said. "It's a good thing we have elephants. What pandas don't like, elephants like."