MEDIA RELEASE: Abused Memphis Zoo Pandas Elicit 87,000 Calls to Send Them Home

MEDIA RELEASE: Abused Memphis Zoo Pandas Elicit 87,000 Calls to Send Them Home

MEMPHIS (Nov. 23, 2021) – International animal protection nonprofit In Defense of Animals has teamed up with Panda Voices to call for the immediate retirement of giant pandas YaYa and LeLe. Over 87,000 people across the world have now signed a petition and In Defense of Animals alert to express their deep concern for the pandas’ welfare. 

Watch the video:

“Anyone watching the Memphis Zoo webcam can see these pandas are in crisis,” said Fleur Dawes, Communications Director for In Defense of Animals. “We’re calling on Memphis Zoo CEO Jim Dean to stop the torture of YaYa and LeLe and send them back to China where they can be nursed back to health, eat suitable food, and live as pandas should.”

Shipped from Beijing, China, in 2003, giant pandas YaYa and LeLe have been held captive at Memphis Zoo for 18 years. They are mistreated and visibly distressed, suffering from insufficient bamboo, malnourishment, excessive caging time (10+ hours), skin mite disease, dental problems and zoochosis — a distressed state of mental health shown through abnormal, repetitive “stereotypical” behaviors. 

YaYa is 21 years old, still under the average life expectancy of giant pandas in Chinese captivity, which is between 25 and 35 years old, with the record age being 38 years old. She has suffered four miscarriages after invasive artificial insemination procedures, has an ongoing skin mite infestation, and is extremely underweight. She shows severe signs of captivity-caused mental distress through repetitive zoochotic behavior, which can be witnessed by zoo visitors and through webcams.

YaYa’s miscarriages were reported in the media in 2007, 2010, and 2012. By 2012, YaYa had already had three miscarriages, yet another artificial insemination was performed on her again in the same year.

In August, Beijing Zoo released an official response to address concerns about YaYa raised by Chinese panda fans. Beijing Zoo and the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens (CAZG) recommended Memphis Zoo address basic panda care such as feeding her bamboo shoots throughout the year and treating her Demodex mites. Memphis Zoo has admitted that it lacks bamboo to feed the pandas by requesting public donations to source this basic food need. Memphis Zoo is yet to mention YaYa’s skin parasite condition, which she has clearly been suffering from for at least 7 years.

LeLe is 23 years old and also suffers from stereotypical behaviors and dental problems. It is common to see him sitting on a rock, playing with his tongue — a typical sign of mental distress caused, among other issues, by the lack of enrichment in their enclosures.

Despite this unprecedented level of public concern, Memphis Zoo remains resolutely stubborn in refusing to engage with the concerns raised by panda lovers across the world or even have a dialogue with them. Yet this concern has been created by Memphis Zoo itself which show via its webcam, pandas LeLe and YaYa in states of lethargy with disturbing, repetitive behaviour and looking thin and unwell to such an extent which has troubled international panda lovers enough to take over 87,000 actions on their behalf.

Vera Yevseeva, a representative of Panda Voices, said, “We care too much to be silent. Memphis Zoo may keep blocking us on social media and posting updates with old videos and photos, but we will keep asking them to provide proper medical care, enrichment, and nutritious food to the pandas they imprison. No other ‘healthy’ captive pandas are so visibly stressed and malnourished, certainly when compared to the numerous other panda webcams provided by other zoos across the world. They are in extremely poor condition, and urgent measures are needed. Returning both pandas to China right away is the responsible thing to do for the pandas' health, and as gratitude for the almost two decades they spent in the zoo.”

Panda Voices is an organization created by an international group of panda fans from Asia, Europe & The Americas, brought together by concerns over pandas YaYa & LeLe. The organization is committed to returning YaYa and LeLe to China, and speaking out for pandas and all animals suffering in captivity.

Tom Clemenson, another representative of Panda Voices added, "We tried to contact Memphis Zoo offering help and donations for the pandas, but to date they have yet to respond to us. Instead, they started blocking all panda fans who leave comments about the pandas or asking questions about YaYa and LeLe on their social media. A great number of active panda fans have been blocked or silenced on their Facebook and Instagram pages. We question Memphis Zoo if putting barriers between the animals and the community, and being completely closed to dialogue is really the best way to deal with this issue. Is the zoo really acting in the animals' interest at all? We do hope Memphis Zoo will be open to have a dialogue with us, be transparent, and willing to improve with the common objective of improving the pandas' quality of life."

According to the organization, Chinese institutions are also facing difficulties in contacting the Memphis Zoo. Yevseeva added, “Weekly since March, a member of Panda Voices has contacted Beijing Zoo and Shanghai Zoo, the owners of YaYa and LeLe, respectively. Both zoos complained that they rarely get a positive response from the Memphis Zoo.”

“Beijing Zoo has informed the panda lovers that it has submitted three requests to the CAZG — the main Chinese contract party of the panda loan — for taking YaYa back in advance on January 7, March 31, and May 7. As the unsuccessful communication with the Memphis Zoo continues, Shanghai Zoo also informed that they are keeping in close contact with the CAZG regarding LeLe’s situation. Both zoos’ complaints and unanswered concerns about the feeding and welfare of their animals illustrate one aspect of the lockdown created by the Memphis Zoo.”

Marc Bekoff Ph.D., professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, has also spoken out regarding this situation: “The footage and material provided by In Defense of Animals and Panda Voices clearly shows there is serious cause for concern for the captive pandas at Memphis Zoo. I have previously highlighted the extreme stress caused to pandas born and raised in captivity, but the extremely poor physical and mental condition of YaYa and LeLe brings this to a new level of urgency. It's time for Memphis Zoo to send these poor pandas home where at least some of their basic needs can be met.”

When a zoo creates a panda cam to allow international audiences to engage with animals, they have a responsibility to respond to the pictorial evidence created by that webcam when it becomes a source of public concern to the extent of 87,000 people. Memphis Zoo seems to ignore its public responsibility and fails to address a whole series of questions about the use of digital technologies in zoos’ public facing activities.

Memphis Zoo has also failed to answer Freedom of Information Act requests for all medical reports for giant pandas YaYa and LeLe, in addition to all medical, veterinary and necropsy reports for seven Grant's gazelles who died last winter, and African elephant Tyrzana who was euthanized in September 2020. Memphis Zoo is ranked #8 on In Defense of Animals’ list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America.

“Memphis Zoo cannot sidestep public accountability forever,” added Dawes. “We are determined to end all suffering and preventable deaths at Memphis Zoo, and get justice for animals who have died there. We urge members of the public to keep up the pressure by signing and sharing our petitions.”

Members of the public can take action for YaYa and LeLe here: petition
In Defense of Animals alert 

### NOTES ###

Images & video:

FOIA requests:



Fleur Dawes, In Defense of Animals,, (415) 879-6879

Tom Clemenson, Panda Voices,, (646) 577-5881

Vera Yevseeva, Panda Voices,, +380 95 270-08-28


In Defense of Animals is an international animal protection organization based in California with over 250,000 supporters and a 38-year history of fighting for animals, people, and the environment through education and campaigns as well as hands-on rescue facilities in India, South Korea, and rural Mississippi.

Panda Voices is an organization created in early 2021 by an international group of panda fans from Asia, Europe & The Americas, brought together by concerns over pandas YaYa & LeLe, which began years before. The organization is committed to give voice to the voiceless and promote the humane treatment of animals in captivity through advocacy and services.


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