Cuddly pandas go on display at the Toronto Zoo this weekend

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Toronto has a fascinating attraction these days, and it's not Mayor Rob Ford.

The doors opened Saturday to the Toronto Zoo's exhibit of giant pandas Da Mao and Er Shun, who arrived from China two months ago.

The cuddly-looking bears sent their first weeks in isolation before their official coming out Thursday in front of guests and dignitaries, including Ford, the National Post reports.

“Today is a proud day for all Canadians,” zoo CEO John Tracogna told the invitees.

The bears were serenaded by a flautist and a children's choir who sang the Chinese and Canadian national anthems.

[ Related: Giant pandas from China make debut at Toronto Zoo today ]

The pandas took all the hoopla in stride, lounging in their enclosure. Male Da Mao munched on imported bamboo shoots imported, while female Er Shun stayed in an area painted to look like the bears' mountainous habitat in China, the Post said.

Maria Franke, the zoo's curator of mammals, told CTV News the pandas each eat about 20 kilograms of bamboo daily.

“They’re quite picky eaters, so they discard half of what we give them and they just kind of smell it, and if that piece smells good then they’ll eat it and if not, they’ll discard it and pick up another piece,” Franke said.

China approved the 10-year loan of the pandas — five in Toronto and five at the zoo in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's home town of Calgary — after a thaw in Canada-Chinese relations.

The Conservative government eased off a few years ago on its hammering of China on human-rights issues in favour of promoting trade and tourism, the Toronto Star said.

“The basic principal with the Chinese is that you need to be on good terms with China,” Ming Tat Cheung, president of Toronto's Chinese Cultural Centre and a member of the zoo's board, told the Star.

“China considers pandas a national treasure. [They] only go to the countries where they consider they have a good relationship.”

Then-Gov.-Gen. Michaelle Jean requested the pandas during a 2010 state visit and the loan was confirmed in 2012 during Harper's visit to China, the Star said.

The pandas arrived via special FedEx flight in March, greeted by Harper.

The Post said the bears display distinct personalities. Da Mao, four years old, is a "rock star" and a "show off," adapting quickly to his new surroundings. Five-year-old Er Shun, by contrast, is more of a "princess," reserved and "all about secrecy," the Post noted.

[ Related: Excitement builds at Toronto Zoo ahead of panda arrivals ]

The bears' keepers are hopeful the pair will get together and produce offspring. They don't actually spend much time together and don't get along, though that hasn't stopped other pandas from mating, the Post noted.

The window for successful mating is very small, between one and three days each year. Keepers are tracking hormone levels in Er Shun's urine to determine the ideal time, expected between March or May next year, the Post said.

“There is a bit of pressure,” joked Gabriela Mastromonaco, head of reproductive programs at the zoo. “It’s going to make or break [my career].”

Whatever the bears do in private, they'll likely have a lot of visitors over the next few years. The last time the Toronto Zoo hosted pandas — Qing Qing and Quan Quan — they drew more than a million visitors over three months in 1985, the Star said.