Chinese pandas LeLe and YaYa suffering at United States zoo

Panda in small crate looking tressed with people around it
Two-year-old female panda YaYa arrives in crate in Memphis, April 7, 2003, photo: Reuters/Troy Glasgow

More than 100,000 people have asked for an end of the suffering of the Chinese pandas YaYa and LeLe at Memphis zoo in the United States.

Animal welfare organizations In Defense of Animals and Panda Voices have called for the immediate release of the 20-year-old female YaYa and the 22-year-old male LeLe. 

The animals at the zoo in Tennessee have very little space, not enough food (bamboo), are mistreated, have skin mite disease and dental problems, and are visibly distressed, the animal welfare organizations say. 

Memphis Zoo has admitted that it doesn’t always have enough bamboo to feed the pandas by requesting the public in 2019 to donate bamboo.

As of Wednesday, 70,455 people signed the change.org petition and 30,826 people supported the In Defense of Animals alert.

“Anyone watching the Memphis Zoo webcam can see these pandas are in crisis,” Fleur Dawes, communications director for In Defense of Animals, said in a press release.

“We’re calling on Memphis Zoo CEO Jim Dean to stop the torture of YaYa and LeLe and send them back to China where they can be nursed back to health, eat suitable food, and live as pandas should,” Dawes added. 

In 2003, YaYa and LeLe were shipped from China to the United States. They’ve been at Memphis Zoo for eighteen years. China ‘loaned’ the animals to Memphis Zoo, and according to the Memphis Business Journal, the zoo can keep the animals till 2023.

But animal welfare organizations and panda lovers worldwide are calling for an immediate end of the loan and return of the pandas to China since Memphis zoo is not correctly taking care of the animals.

YaYa has suffered four miscarriages – in 20072010, and 2012 – after artificial insemination procedures. In 2012, another artificial insemination was performed on YaYa had after her third miscarriage. She is extremely underweight and shows repetitive stress behaviour, which has been documented by zoo visitors and webcams.


Despite the massive level of public concern, the animal welfare organizations say the zoo doesn’t want to engage in a conversation on how to improve the lives of the pandas.

“Unfortunately, Memphis Zoo has closed down all lanes of communication at the present. They simply refuse to have a dialogue with us and answer our questions, and are not willing to improve,” a representative for Panda Voices told The Animal Reader in a mail.

“We will keep asking them [Memphis zoo] to provide proper medical care, enrichment, and nutritious food to the pandas they imprison,” Vera Yevseeva from Panda Voices said. 

She added that returning the pandas to China would be the correct thing to do and would show the animals “gratitude for the almost two decades they spent in the zoo.”

In February, Memphis zoo responded to the concerns with an online interview on their Facebook page with their director of animal programs, Courtney Janney, who said that she compared YaYa to being a very “petite woman” to explain her skinny look. “She’s a smaller framed panda…and she carries her weight a little bit differently.”

About her fur, Janney said it’s “simply not as thick as other normal pandas.” Senior veterinarian at the zoo, Felicia Knightly, added that “the issue is that she [YaYa] just doesn’t have a good hair day a lot of times.”

In 2019, the pandas Bai Yun and her 6-year-old cub Xiao Liwu were sent back to China after living almost two decades at the San Diego Zoo in California. 

The Animal Reader is a small independent news platform with daily posts about issues affecting animals.

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