Memphis Zoo workers used to call Ya Ya, a giant panda that has lived in Memphis since 2003, a "person in a panda suit."
"Ya Ya, as an individual, is a wonderful animal," zoo CEO Matt Thompson said. "She's always been kind of a small animal, and she's gotten some attention for perhaps looking a little different, but she makes up for that in personality. She's just a wonderful animal, I've worked with her since she was almost a baby. She took a liking to me early on, and she's very funny. She likes to play and she was hand raised in China, so we joke she thinks she's a person."
Ya Ya is set to return to Chinain cooperation with the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens. Saturday, the Memphis Zoo held a farewell party for Ya Ya. Zoo guests gathered before the exhibit opened to watch a performance by the Tennessee Happy Kung Fu team directed by Master Qin. Guests were quick to gather against the glass to watch Ya Ya when the party started.
"We have come to pride ourselves on the exhibits we have built to celebrate culture from different regions of the country and the world. And this [the China exhibit] was the exhibit that kind of set us on that course," Thompson said. "So the cultural things we have done since then, we're very proud of and all of the things associated with it, conservation and research, our relationships around the world, I wouldn't trade for anything. It's been a wonderful experience, and while we're very sad to see Ya Ya go, we're very proud of the legacy she leaves behind."
Thompson was on the plane with Ya Ya when she and another giant panda named Le Le came to Memphis from China and called the experience "unreal." Le Le died unexpectedly in his sleep at the age of 24 in February. At the time, Thompson said zookeepers were devastated and that the zoo was in touch with and received condolences from the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens.
The Memphis Zoo has been one of three zoos in the United States to have pandas courtesy of that organization. The others are Zoo Atlanta and the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. The San Diego Zoo returned its pandas to China in 2019.
"Many people in the Mid-South that have grown up with pandas didn't realize how few zoos have them," Thompson said. "They thought, 'Oh every zoo has pandas' or didn't realize until we talked about pandas returning that it was truly an unusual thing. When they arrived, everybody realized that and then over time, as people grew up with them, they didn't realize how rare it is."
Sarah Carroll was 14 when the pandas arrived in Memphis and remembers paying a few bucks to watch a panda film in the China exhibit. The pandas, Carroll said, always brought a lot of joy. Over the years, she has grown to love pandas and took her 2-year-old son to the farewell party.
"I really wish that he would remember a little bit more, but he, I mean he's 2, but he knew the bears," Carroll said. "He would point and say 'Ya Ya' or 'Le Le.'"
In recent years, the Memphis Zoo has drawn the ire of activists who believed the pandas were being mistreated and neglected. The allegations were furthered when pop star Billie Eilish joined in to advocate for the return of the pandas to China. The zoo has repeatedly said the pandas are in excellent health considering their age and existing genetics, and the Chinese association has issued a statement confirming that it believes the pandas are receiving "the highest quality of care."
This hasn't stopped rumors from floating around social media and people have continued to claim that Le Le died of neglect. At the same time as the zoo's farewell party, In Defense of Animals and Panda Voices hosted a virtual memorial to honor Le Le.
"It's been something we've had to deal with, more from a social media standpoint," Thompson said. "It's been an ongoing online narrative that we know to not be true. We have been scrutinized by every agency you can possibly think of within the U.S. and visited by panda experts all over the world. ... We're very transparent about everything we do. And every single time they come and see our program, and they walk away and say, 'Wow, this is pretty amazing.'"
Ya Ya will remain in Memphis until the end of the month, and the China exhibit will continue after she returns to China. Other animals in the exhibit include Pere David deer, Asian small-clawed otters and white-naped cranes. For now, the zoo is exploring plans for the panda habitat and reflecting on 20 years of Le Le and Ya Ya.
"When we got to go to China and worked out the agreement with them that we would bring pandas to the Mid-South, pandas were in a very bad situation in the wild and the numbers were very low, and over the last 20 years, they are no longer in danger in China," Thompson said. "To be a part of that story and to contribute to that in any way has been a wonderful thing."
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis Zoo holds farewell party for panda set to return to China