MEDIA RELEASE: Premature Death Prompts Calls for Memphis Zoo to Never Keep Pandas Again

MEDIA RELEASE: Premature Death Prompts Calls for Memphis Zoo to Never Keep Pandas Again

MEMPHIS (Feb. 3 2022)In Defense of Animals and Panda Voices are devastated at the news that LeLe, a giant panda held at the Memphis Zoo, has died. In Defense of Animals and Panda Voices are urging Memphis Zoo to send female panda YaYa back to China immediately before her health worsens. They have renewed their call on the zoo to stop exhibiting pandas and are calling on Chinese authorities to stop sending pandas to Memphis Zoo in the future. The organizations want the zoo to make LeLe’s medical records public and give the public access to the panda cam within the indoor room of the panda enclosure, as only the exhibit area is visible on the cam. For the past three days, LeLe was not seen on the panda cam in the exhibit, leaving advocates to grow increasingly concerned. 

“It’s beyond heartbreaking that LeLe died prematurely of neglect and inadequate care when he was so close to being returned to China,” said Brittany Michelson, Captive Animals Campaigner for In Defense of Animals. “Memphis Zoo blatantly failed him. His health was clearly suffering, yet no recommended changes were made to help him or YaYa. Memphis Zoo has demonstrated its inability to properly care for the pandas, and must not be allowed to exhibit them in the future.” 

Just six weeks ago, the organizations were celebrating news that he and YaYa would be returned to their homeland of China once their loan contract ends on April 7, following two years of campaign on their behalf.

After 20 years of suffering at the Memphis Zoo, LeLe was so close to release from suffering. Zoo captivity and prolonged, inadequate care destroyed this precious individual. The Memphis Zoo failed him through awful care, neglect, and ignoring concerns from advocates and the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens (CAZG). LeLe was only 24 years old when he died, yet pandas can live well over 30 years. LeLe's own mother XinXing passed away at the age of 38 years old in 2020 in China. 

Following a successful campaign to see Memphis Zoo’s giant pandas YaYa and LeLe returned to China, In Defense of Animals, Panda Voices, and an international network of panda advocates sounded the alarm after seeing LeLe collapse on January 25. In Defense of Animals and Panda Voices are calling on Memphis Zoo to immediately improve the quality of bamboo and panda care before LeLe and YaYa travel back to China and to commit to stopping exhibiting giant pandas.

Watch the disturbing video:

In December, Memphis Zoo and the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens announced the giant pandas would return to China in spring 2023, following a two-year campaign by In Defense of Animals and Panda Voices.

However, LeLe started showing more signs of physical deterioration in mid-January. Panda monitors watching the pandas via the zoo’s panda cam noted LeLe’s health issues escalating over several days. The most worrying moment happened on January 25 and was recorded by panda monitors. LeLe tried to eat a bamboo stalk, suddenly collapsed on the ground, and didn't stand up for several hours. He barely ate anything that day, which is another significant concern since giant pandas need to eat for around 10 to 16 hours daily. 

Due to the poor nutritional quality of bamboo given to the pandas at Memphis Zoo, they need to spend even more time eating to gain sufficient energy. Panda advocates have long been concerned about the quality and quantity of the bamboo provided to the giant pandas at Memphis Zoo. Panda monitors note the quality of the bamboo given to YaYa and LeLe recently has deteriorated further. The bamboo stalks given to the pandas look yellow and dry, and the amount provided is far below what should be given to an animal who spends more than half a day eating. Moreover, pandas are very particular about their food and only eat particular types of fresh bamboo, refusing dry or wilted leaves and discolored stalks. It is common to see LeLe and YaYa refusing to eat the bamboo given to them.

In January, LeLe showed very little interest in bamboo, was visibly weak, and appeared emaciated. YaYa, 22, and LeLe, 24, have suffered at the Memphis Zoo since 2003. YaYa and LeLe could be seen visibly distressed and malnourished, spending their days pacing or sleeping, clearly bored in their dirty, small enclosure. YaYa has a chronic skin condition, and LeLe had significant teeth issues resulting in broken molars. He seemed to be also having severe digestive problems in January.

In the past, In Defense of Animals and Panda Voices made repeated attempts to meet with Memphis Zoo President Matt Thompson to address concerns about the pandas but were ignored. The organizations then worked to expose the pandas' suffering and alerted CAZG to the poor quality of food and care provided to YaYa and LeLe. The Chinese zoo organization released a statement on March 10, 2022, titled “Statement on husbandry and health condition of the giant pandas LeLe and YaYa at the Memphis Zoo.” CAZG admitted both pandas are underweight and suggests Memphis Zoo improve their diets by increasing food variety and protein sources to improve nutrition and help them gain weight. However, there is no evidence Memphis Zoo has implemented CAZG’s suggestions to improve the pandas’ diet.

Memphis Zoo must release LeLe’s health records and act on the recommendations CAZG made for YaYa. LeLe died waiting for Memphis Zoo to improve his diet per CAZG’s recommendations and YaYa should not be forced to suffer the same fate. This is even more important since YaYa is scheduled to return to China in the following months and needs to be healthy, strong, and fit to endure the long flight home.

“It is with a heavy heart that we acknowledge King LeLe has passed on to Panda Planet,” said Tom Clemenson, spokesperson for Panda Voices. “We have fought very hard to bring awareness and change to the lives of giant pandas worldwide, that fight began with LeLe and YaYa at the Memphis Zoo. Our dedication of the past three years — preventing LeLe from dying at Memphis Zoo has unfortunately become reality. In the name of LeLe, we continue the fight to save YaYa. Please expect a full investigation to follow. We must Protect All Pandas.”

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Images, video & FOIA requests:



25,050 actions (325,650 emails sent) When Zoo Contract Ends, Giant Pandas Must Go Home to China
88,024 actions (700,112 emails sent) Memphis Zoo: Return Suffering Pandas YaYa and LeLe to China Before It’s Too Late
87,514 signatures End Pandas YaYa & LeLe’s suffering and send them back home now!


July 25, 2022
Sept. 8, 2022

Learn more: 

Jan. 31, 2023 MEDIA RELEASE: Giant Panda Collapse at Memphis Zoo Prompts Calls for Immediate Action & Permanent End to Panda Exhibit
Dec. 21, 2022 MEDIA RELEASE: Memphis Zoo's Suffering Giant Pandas to Return Home to China
April 8, 2022 MEDIA RELEASE: Official Joint Statement From Panda Voices and In Defense of Animals on Memphis Zoo Pandas
Feb. 8, 2022 MEDIA RELEASE: Billie Eilish Wants to Save Abused Memphis Zoo Pandas
Nov. 23, 2021 MEDIA RELEASE: Abused Memphis Zoo Pandas Elicit 87,000 Calls to Send Them Home


In Defense of Animals, Brittany Michelson,, 928-420-0727
Panda Voices, Taciana Santiago, 

In Defense of Animals is an international animal protection organization based in Marin County, California, with over 250,000 supporters and a 40-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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