So you want to know who will win next year’s Super Bowl? If you’re like many residents of Memphis, you can follow a trail to the Tennessee city’s zoo and consult a panda on the game’s outcome.

Memphis Zoo resident Le Le has been making annual predictions on the winner of American football’s showpiece event since 2014. According to the zoo, Le Le has picked the winner three times over the past eight years.

Le Le, who was born in July 1998, and his partner Ya Ya, born in August 2000, have called Memphis home since 2003.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the first giant pandas in the United States as a gift from China in 1972.

Strong history

“I think the 50th anniversary shows that we can work together and that we have a strong history of doing so, and that we can come together around this common theme of conserving the giant panda,” Matt Thompson, the president and chief executive of the Memphis Zoo, told Seal News. “I’m very proud of the fact that we can be a part of that.”

In 1997, James Sasser, then-US ambassador to China and a former US senator from Tennessee, and zoo officials began working toward a panda loan program.

Six years later, the pair arrived in the US on a FedEx jet with large panda faces painted on its sides.

The viewing area for Le Le and Ya Ya at the zoo is part of a $16 million Chinese-themed complex that includes a 15-meter pagoda, cultural pavilion, garden and enclosures for other Chinese animals.

A visitor walking by the red pagoda at the entrance will see a bronze bell in the courtyard. The courtyard’s walls are bright red, the bricks are bright yellow, and the eaves are painted green and blue. At first glance, it seems that one has suddenly arrived at the Forbidden City in Beijing.

“We want our visitors, when they go to the China Exhibit specifically, to feel like they’re visiting China,” Thompson said.

“Not everyone gets the opportunity to travel all the way around the world and see China. And China has such rich cultural heritage in such a long history,” he said.

Around 8 am, Elizabeth Whalen, a zookeeper at the Memphis Zoo, begins her daily routine with Le Le.

Whalen leads Le Le into the cage, where he sits down and is weighed. Then, following Whalen’s body language, Le Le gets up and turns around in the cage. After doing these actions, Whalen gives Le Le some treats as a reward.

With this type of training, “we can check his body condition, make sure he’s in great shape, and make sure that everything looks normal”, said Whalen. “We run through all of these behaviors every morning before putting them in the exhibit. So we can notice if there’s any difference, like how they’re feeling, how they’re doing.”

However, last year photos of the two pandas at the Memphis Zoo began circulating online after some people claimed the animals look malnourished and lacked proper care.

One video posted on Sina Weibo included commentary that one of the pandas at the zoo looked too thin. With the video going viral, it caused widespread concern among Chinese netizens, many of whom called for the pandas to be transferred home.

In response to the concern over the pandas’ condition, the zoo said the animals were “receiving exemplary care”.

“Since their arrival in 2003, both our male and female pandas have had thorough annual physical examinations which have always consisted of extensive diagnostic testing in order to evaluate them internally as well as externally,” the Memphis Zoo said in a statement.

A report from the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens, or CAZG, in April said that monthly reports show both the pandas in Memphis are receiving “excellent care”.

Physical examinations were performed and the results indicate the pandas are in normal condition and “there were no abnormalities”, a report from the association said.

Scientific studies

Loan arrangements for pandas from China really took off in 1982. By 1994, the long-term loan model between China and the US shifted to an emphasis on partnering on scientific studies to protect the species.

Memphis Zoo and the CAZG had been partners even before the pandas arrived in the city.

Both organizations collaborated on the design and planning of the zoo’s China Exhibit, including the giant panda habitat, and over the past 19 years have continued to work together to ensure the best care for the animals.

“We’re constantly working with researchers in China working on various projects,” Whalen told Seal News.

Thompson said the research program “bridges our countries” with the aim of protecting the pandas.

“No matter the relations between the countries or what’s going on in the world at the time, everyone is unified in the idea that we need to save pandas, and pandas are very secretive animals,” he said.

Highlighting the cooperation between the two countries, the text of a speech given by ambassador Sasser is displayed as part of the material explaining the giant panda cooperation project at Memphis Zoo.

“This panda exhibit is a demonstration of trust between two great nations. It is a demonstration of our willingness to learn from each other-and to work together,” the text reads.

“And my hope is that as the people of Tennessee learn about pandas and the country that houses them, that trust will deepen,” he said.

“Yes, we’ve built an exhibit. But we’re also building a bridge-a bridge between two countries that did not always see eye to eye in the past-but as friends, as partners can shape the future of this planet.”

In 1987, Memphis Zoo also hosted a panda for a month as part of a traveling exhibit that sparked a panda craze as visitors flocked to the zoo.

“Even though that animal was only here for a month, thousands and thousands and thousands of people came to see that animal. We had a line out to the parking lot because they were so excited to see this very rare animal,” Thompson said.

When Le Le and Ya Ya arrived in Memphis in 2003, the city became one of only four zoos in the US to house pandas.

“There’s only, I think four zoos in America that have pandas. So that makes it a really special thing to have here at our zoo,” Mellissa, a local tourist at the zoo, told Seal News.

In 2008, a bumper year, Le Le and Ya Ya helped the Memphis Zoo draw 1 million visitors.

According to a report in the Memphis Business Journal, an extension signed in 2013 allows the pandas to stay in Memphis until 2023.

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