‘How I Spent My Summer’ (conclusion): Terri Dunson

Dunson Lead

We conclude our incredibly enlightening and popular “How I Spent My Summer” series that chronicles the experiences of the Fund For Teachers grant recipients through the Atlanta Education Fund. Finally: E. Rivers Elementary teacher Terri Dunson, who traveled to China for a kind of panda adventure you definitely won’t get at the Atlanta Zoo — but makes you want to go anyway! Dunson picks up the story at the jump …

I had the great fortune to be awarded a 2009 summer fellowship from Funds for Teachers to travel to China to work in wildlife conservation. After the conclusion of an incredibly busy school year, I happily packed my bags and flew to Chengdu, China, which is the home of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, the only nonprofit organization engaged in wildlife research, captive breeding, conservation education and educational tourism.

For the next month, I worked up close and personal with five giant pandas. I studied the history and evolution of giant pandas and their significance to the environment, assisted a keeper with feeding/bathing, studied the nutritional needs of giant pandas, learned to prepare their meals (they eat more than just bamboo!!), learned about biodiversity conservation and husbandry, learned how to conduct behavioral scientific research on giant pandas, and learned the specifics of giant panda breeding. This all took place working side-by-side with giant panda experts and educators at the base.

My favorite parts of this experience were simply being able to work so closely with the animals. I particularly enjoyed using a syringe to inject medicine and vitamins into their mouths each day. The names and pronunciations of the giant pandas I worked with are as follows: Shu Lin (“shoo leen”), Xing Rong (“sheen roan”), Ji You (“zi yoo”), Ji Li (“zi lee”) and Ya Xin (“ya sheen”).

They have slightly different markings to help distinguish one from the others, and it was very cool to learn to tell them apart. Shu Lin, for example, has two tiny blackish marks on the white fur right between his eyes.

Dunson Jump

Now, I know I should not have favorites, but I have to say I quickly became partial to Shu Lin. It’s funny how their personalities shine through, and Shu Lin was just a hoot. Actually, he was the troublemaker of the group. He did just what he wanted, and it was quite funny to watch. For instance, when Mr. Tan, the panda keeper I worked with, would call the pandas to come in for their apple treats or their baths, Shu Lin was always the one who didn’t come. Mr. Tan would have to call him repeatedly, sometimes for up to 10 minutes, before he would finally decide to slowly take his sweet time walking over. When they were given fresh bamboo (several times per day), he was either the first to get to it and picked the very best pieces or he waited and waited and waited, then walked over to take the bamboo out of the hands of his panda friends.

Adding to the comedy of this is that the other pandas just let him get away with it. One afternoon, he was the last to finish eating his bamboo. The other pandas were already sleeping in a couple of different spots in their outdoor habitat. So when Shu Lin was finished eating, he proceeded to walk over to the other pandas … walking right on top of them, not even bothering to use panda manners and walk around them. He just climbed right over them and wedged his way right in the middle of two that had been sleeping peacefully side by side. Just hysterical to watch!
I have a newfound respect for keepers of animals in zoos and research centers. It’s difficult and dirty work. It’s also wonderfully fulfilling for an animal lover to have the opportunity to care for animals on a daily basis allowing for trusting relationships to develop between animals and keepers.

This was truly an experience of a lifetime for me. I will always look back fondly on my experience in Chengdu. I also highly recommend that all you teachers out there apply for a fellowship via Fund for Teachers. Writing a good, thorough proposal can be time-consuming, but you can’t imagine how “worth it” it is to get that cherished letter in the mail reading, “We are pleased to inform you that your proposal has been accepted … .”

2 thoughts on “‘How I Spent My Summer’ (conclusion): Terri Dunson

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  1. Wow, Terri it really does sound like you learned a lot and enjoyed yourself along the way. Congratulations on getting to spend your summer in China. How cool!

  2. It was interesting to read about the behaviors and attitudes exhibited by the pandas. I found the behavioral study of the animals quite interesting. Glad to know it was such a fulfilling experience.

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