Note: My investigative reporting took serious critical thinking and research skills. Learn more about my process.
Published on GlobalNews.ca, June 8, 2016.
Little panda bears, big behind-the-scenes production.
When the Toronto Zoo’s two giant panda cubs were born in the middle of the night last October, staff quickly sprang into action.
Several hours after their 3 a.m. births, out went a tweet, birth video and press release.
— The Toronto Zoo (@TheTorontoZoo) October 13, 2015
But before the public first laid eyes on the wriggling panda babies, zoo CEO John Tracogna pulled up to a keyboard in the early morning hours and fired off not one, not two but 21 emails to need-to-know contacts stretching four pages.
They ran the gamut from numerous Chinese government officials to a federal diplomat responsible for “veterinary affairs.”
It was all according to plan — the zoo’s extensive panda PR plan, a copy of which Global News obtained through a freedom of information request.
The panda papers show how much careful planning and bureaucratic legwork — and a lengthy paper trail — underpins the celebrated giant pandas and their cuddly cubs.
The 24 pages also shed light on how much diplomatic weight the bamboo-chomping bears unknowingly throw around in bilateral affairs between Canada and the Asian powerhouse. After all, there’s a reason “panda diplomacy” has been picked at by scholars.
So when panda Er Shun went into labour, the plan had meticulous steps to follow, beginning with the cubs’ “notification protocol.”
The birth of the wriggly pair fired the starting gun and the phone calls, text messages and emails began, with the crucial first call relaying the news from the panda compound maternity ward getting things going.
“Panda keeper on duty will notify control… control will call Wildlife Care Supervisor on call… who will call Maria Frank. Maria will call vet on call and Dr. Dutton…” it reads, going on to list another seven staffers down the contact chain.
All were barred from letting the news slip out until the birth of the second cub, the plan makes crystal clear in bold letters.
Stakeholders were tipped off first, a job falling onto the shoulders of zoo boss Tracogna, with the assistance of a ready-made draft.
“I am writing to inform you that Er Shun, our female giant panda on loan from China as part of a Giant Panda Conservation Breeding Program has given birth to two cubs,” begins the email.
Of the 21 addresses on Tracogna’s list, Canada’s ambassador to China and several federal officials were the first to get the news, including the public diplomacy staff handling the panda file, but also a high-ranking veterinarian, an immigration manager and a “temporary resident supervisor.”
Tracogna’s emails then landed in the inboxes of Chinese officials, ranging from the government’s forestry and animal departments to the giant panda centre and zoo the older giant panda pair are on loan from. At that point, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa was clued in.
Another zoo staffer finished the job, informing the zoo board, while other major panda players such as the offices of the prime minister, premier and Toronto mayor, as well as the animals’ corporate sponsors, also feature on the communications list.
The designer of the panda signage at the zoo was briefed, too.
Around 8 a.m., the panda news hit the zoo’s website and social media channels, all part of what the communications strategy calls a “milestone event” for the institution that would bolster its big-picture goal of leadership in protecting species.
The documents show zoo staff doting over the press release introducing the cubs to the world, with an announcement of last year’s birth of pandas at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington cited for reference.
Several possibilities aside from a successful birth were played out, reflecting the difficulty of giant panda breeding — from pregnancy failure if the fetus was reabsorbed, if Er Shun showed no interest in the cubs (requiring their immediate incubation), or the worst-case scenarios of a stillbirth or if one or both of the tiny pandas died in their infancy.
But success it was, and the cubs have usurped their mother Er Shun and male Da Mao as a symbol of international co-operation between the two countries.
— The Toronto Zoo (@TheTorontoZoo) March 7, 2016
And while former prime minister Stephen Harper didn’t shy away from photo ops with the older pair — personally welcoming them on the tarmac upon their arrival in 2013 — current PM Justin Trudeau also knows the diplomatic power of the panda cubs, and was among those attending the much-hyped unveiling of their names at the zoo in March.
It was yet more time in the spotlight for a pair of panda cubs who get PR handling worthy of any human celebrity — or politician.
Photo credit: The Toronto Zoo/Twitter