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'Pandas' IMAX Movie Follows the First Artificially Bred Panda into the Wild - And Features Plenty of Drexel Connections

May 31, 2018

Jacob Owens standing and holding Qian Qian
Drexel graduate Jacob Owens holding Qian Quian, the star of "Pandas."

A new IMAX documentary holding a sneak-peak soon in Philadelphia follows the journey of the first giant panda to be released into the wild as a part of a program dreamt up by a Drexel University professor. 

“Pandas” details work being done to put the first giant pandas born through artificial breeding into the wild. James R. Spotila, PhD, Betz Chair Professor of Environmental Science in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences, spearheaded the creation of the program, which prepared the cubs to become ready for their natural environment. 

A sneak peak of the movie, with limited seats open to the public, will be held at 7 p.m. June 7 in the Franklin Institute’s IMAX theater. The film, narrated by Kristen Bell, of “The Good Place” fame, isn’t expected to open in Philadelphia until early next year. This gives audiences a months-early look into the story of Qian Qian, the first cub that was born as a result of the artificial breeding program at a Chinese research base to be released into the wild.

“I think it’s really inspiring to see the work of our Drexel students, post-docs, and graduates saving an animal as precious as the giant panda,” Spotila said. “To see it featured in such an important film is very gratifying.”

Buy Tickets for the Sneak “Pandas” Screening Here

Benjamin Kilham, who Spotila met through a colleague and guided to a Drexel PhD, is one of the most prominent Dragons featured in the documentary.

At the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, Hou Rong, the director of research, had determined how to artificially breed giant pandas but was struggling with how to successfully release them. The goal was to get pandas born in captivity to survive in the wild and breed, boosting their low population. But the releases others did, called “hard releases,” basically just blindly put the pandas out into the wilderness, with little in the way of monitoring their success. 

Looking for a way to soft release pandas, Spotila recognized the value of Benjamin Kilham, a former student he’d guided to a PhD. A self-taught expert in black bears, Kilham, focuses on raising orphaned black bear cubs and reintroducing them to the wild.

Benjamin Kilham sitting on the side of a hill with a panda, looking at each other

“I don’t teach bears how to be bears. The knowledge is already inside them,” Kilham explained in the documentary’s trailer.

As such, Spotila, working through the Global Cause Foundation, suggested to Hou that they use the “soft release” technique Kilham developed with black bears — pairing a scientist with each animal on their release, allowing them to observe and protect them. 

So the documentary follows Qian Qian as the first subject of this program and, through that, introduces audiences to another pair of Drexel-related characters.

Jacob Owens, who earned his PhD at Drexel in 2013 and is a post-doctoral researcher for Spotila at the Global Cause Foundation, and current Drexel doctoral student Wenlei Bi, run the reintroduction program that Hou and Spotila developed. The film profiles their work and, specifically, Owens’ relationship with Qian Qian, which began when she was just six months old.

“She was extremely affectionate,” Owens remembered in a behind-the-scenes featureon the film. “She would come up to me, climb onto me, and fall asleep.”

It was Owens and Kilham who identified Qian Qian as the ideal candidate for the first reintroduction in the new program. Her journey — with all of its ups and downs — back into her natural habitat makes up the movie.

Spotila is encouraged that a story like Qian Qian’s — and the Chengdu Research Base — is getting such attention. Giant pandas, once endangered, are slowly making a comeback, but that is threatened by climate change.

“Their habitat is threatened by global warming,” he explained. “Fifty percent of it could be gone by 2080.”

As such, Spotila feels giant pandas “are the world’s greatest symbol of conservation.” He hopes that anyone who goes to see “Pandas” leaves it impacted.

“I want them to have a feeling of hope that we can, in fact, save these animals by working hard and closely with them, and with an open and friendly relationship with China,” Spotila said.