Giant Pandas

Meet Smithsonian expert Dr. Copper Aitken-Palmer

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Dr. Copper Aitken-Palmer

Dr. Copper Aitken-Palmer is the chief veterinarian of the Department of Conservation Medicine at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, in Front Royal, Virginia. She earned her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) and a Master of Science (MS) degree in clinical sciences, both from Kansas State University and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland.  She completed a zoological medicine residency at the University of Florida and is a Diplomate of the American College of Zoological Medicine. Her work routinely takes her to China as she specializes in giant panda reproduction, health and conservation.

The Smithsonian University Travel Program studying pandas in China owes a lot to Dr. Copper Aitken-Palmer. Her personal knowledge and connections from working in China help inform a rich itinerary for our faculty-led program that lets you give students once-in-a-lifetime access to these amazing creatures.

Dr. Aitken-Palmer’s work is just part of what makes Smithsonian University Travel Programs one-of-a-kind. Learn more about our Smithsonian expert, Dr. Aitken-Palmer.

WorldStrides: Tell us about your role.

Dr. Aitken-Palmer: I’m the chief veterinarian at the SCBI where I work to keep all of the animals healthy. I’ve also been working with the Giant Panda Team at the National Zoo for over ten years. For that project, I work with the Smithsonian Institution and the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.  My research specialty is male panda physiology and I am also currently working with panda centers across China to understand panda health and disease. Additionally, I am working with the panda centers in China, SCBI, and George Mason University to study red panda health and reproduction.

WorldStrides: How did you get into your field?

Dr. Aitken-Palmer: As a kid, I was told to be a veterinarian because I loved animals. After hearing that, I knew that I wanted to be a zoo/wildlife veterinarian throughout my childhood. I came out to SCBI for an internship before I went to veterinary school. It wasn’t glamorous, but there I met the people studying giant pandas. I went on to complete my D.V.M., M.S., and PhD. and ended up taking a job with the Smithsonian.

Dr. Copper Aitken-Palmer

WorldStrides: Tell us something few people know about working with pandas.

Dr. Aitken-Palmer: Pandas all have individual personalities. Every single one has very different personality; some are shy; some are interested in everything around them. Pandas are also very picky about their bamboo. They know what they like and that’s the only one they want. We feed them various species of bamboo, but they won’t eat the bamboo they don’t like. We don’t exactly know why they do this yet, but we suspect they are selecting the bamboo based on the different types of nutrients.

WorldStrides: When you go home each day, what makes you most proud?

Dr. Aitken-Palmer: If something terrible happened and all wild pandas were wiped out, we have enough in zoos that we could have pandas living on our planet for at least 200 more years, potentially forever. The global captive giant panda population has grown significantly over the past decade and much of that is because of extensive scientific study on their physiological and reproductive health. Next up, we need the red panda to have the same funding efforts to promote their conservation.

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