Cathay Pacific quite often flies celebrities and business leaders. Now the airline can count a new category of VIP – that is, a Very Important Panda.
Gao Gao has returned home after a successful 15-year stint at San Diego Zoo in California. While there he fathered no less than five cubs – a very important effort indeed for the vulnerable breed. Now aged 26, the equivalent of 80 in human years, he was returning to the Chinese Centre for Research and Conservation for the Giant Panda in Dujiangyan, close to Chengdu.
Cathay Pacific has considerable expertise in carrying live animals – from relocating family pets to moving valuable horses for race meetings. But pandas are always a special consignment, and this was an epic trip for the old fellow – by truck to Los Angeles, and then a freighter to Hong Kong with a stopover in Anchorage, Alaska, for fuel, and then the final leg to Chengdu.
He travelled with a retinue of keepers and even the zoo’s director of veterinary services. Although Gao Gao was in his crate on the main deck, the zoo personnel travelled in style in the upper deck ‘bubble’ – six seats behind the 747’s flight deck. Kathy Hawk, a senior keeper at San Diego Zoo, says: ‘The neat thing was being able to see him during the flight, check on him regularly and tend to his needs.’
The secret of a successful shipment is getting the animals accustomed to the barrage of noises in cargo warehouses and on aircraft. Being towed across the tarmac at an airport with whining and roaring jet engines all around is a particular challenge.
Hawk says: ‘We get them used to the crate, and the noises of forklifts, buzzers and beepers. We try to desensitise them as much as we can to make the journey as stress-free as possible.’
Discovery caught up with Gao Gao and his team at the Large Animal Handling Centre, a special part of the state-of-the-art Cathay Pacific Cargo Terminal at Hong Kong International Airport where he was waiting for his connecting flight to Chengdu. The journey had gone well. Hawk adds: ‘The only thing is he gets a bit huffy when the plane is coming into land because the noises are different, but nothing serious.’
The biggest issue? Saying goodbye for the final time. ‘We’ve lost our hearts to him. But he’s going back to his home and that’s an important aspect of our work.