'A favorite of all who met and worked with him': Memphis Zoo's Giant Panda Le Le dies at 24

Le Le the 22-year-old Giant Panda picks the Kansas City Chiefs to win the Super Bowl over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from the Memphis Zoo on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021.
Le Le the 22-year-old Giant Panda picks the Kansas City Chiefs to win the Super Bowl over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from the Memphis Zoo on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021.

After two decades in Memphis and an estimated 18 million visitors, Le Le the Giant Panda died unexpectedly in his sleep early Thursday morning.

Le Le, who came to the zoo in 2003, was 24 years old at the time of his death. He was born July 18, 1998.

More:Memphis Zoo responds to allegations of panda mistreatment, this time bolstered by singer Billie Eilish

"Le Le's name translates to 'happy happy,' and his name perfectly reflected his personality," the zoo said. "Le Le was a happy bear that enjoyed apples, engaging with enrichments and relaxing while covering himself with freshly shredded bamboo. He had an easy-going personality and was a favorite of all who met and worked with him over the years."

Matt Thompson, the Memphis Zoo's CEO and president said zookeepers were devastated; days prior, Le Le showed no signs of distress. A medical team composed of veterinary medicine specialists will conduct a thorough exam in the coming days in order to find a cause of death.

One of the two pandas that came to the Memphis Zoo in 2003, Le Le was slated to be returned to China in the coming months. Ya Ya, the zoo's surviving Giant Panda, is still scheduled to be returned to China.

If the zoo gets their way, Thompson said, their conservations efforts for the species will continue with another pair of Giant Pandas — though it's too early to know where those bears would come from.

The Memphis Zoo is one of three zoos in the United States to have pandas courtesy of the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens. The other two zoos are Zoo Atlanta and the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Thompson told reporters the zoo was in touch and received condolences from the CAZG.

The life span for wild pandas is unclear and changing regularly, but the Smithsonian said it could range from 15-20 years. In human care, pandas can live upwards of 30 years.

"So that's roughly right in the middle," Thompson said of Le Le's age.

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 co-signed disdain for perceived mistreatment of the pandas.

"CAZG is confident that the giant pandas at the Memphis Zoo are receiving the highest quality of care," the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens said at the time.

A series of detailed statements from the Memphis Zoo explained that both Ya Ya and Le Le were in great health, especially for their age.

A group of panda advocates including In Defense of Animals and Panda Voices, two of the groups who had previously called for the pandas to be sent back to China, had reported that Le Le had collapsed a few days prior to his death, most recently on Jan. 25.

Both In Defense of Animals and Panda Voices derive their observations from the cameras that point towards the dayrooms for both Giant Pandas.

Thompson dismissed the ongoing accusations of mistreatment from the animal advocacy organizations.

"They've done that for years, made false accusations over and over. It's unfortunate," Thompson said. "We're talking about two of the most spoiled animals on this planet."

Courtney Janney, the zoo's chief zoological officer, attributed the so-called collapses to Le Le's personality.

"He was known for his silly antics," Janney said, adding that it wasn't unusual for Le Le to dramatically flop to the ground.

As for Ya Ya, Thompson said as Giant Pandas get older, their preference for solitude increases. The two bears have always had separate dayrooms.

And while Thompson said Ya Ya is likely to notice Le Le's absence, she will now be the sole focus of heart-broken zookeepers.

"So she'll be spoiled rotten," Thompson said.

In Le Le's now-empty play room stands a large wreath along with a photo, and one of his blankets. Thompson said the zoo welcomes any and all guests to come and pay tribute to Le Le with flowers or cards.

Micaela Watts is a reporter for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at micaela.watts@commercialappeal.com.

Lucas Finton is a news reporter for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached by email at Lucas.Finton@CommercialAppeal.com and followed on Twitter @LucasFinton.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis Zoo's giant panda Le Le dead at 24