Passionate about wild animals, McShea works to conserve large mammals such as giant pandas, takin and Asiatic black bears in the bamboo forests of China.
Don’t Call Him ‘Panda Guy’
Bill McShea ’77, P’09 is so much more than just the keeper of the country’s favorite bear
by Michael Blanding
photographs by James Kegley

f you run into Bill McShea ’77, P’09 at a cocktail party, ask him about the star-nosed mole. Ask him about the golden takin, a powerful moose-sized goat native to southern China. Ask him about the sun bear, a resourceful ursid from Southeast Asia that uses massive claws to shinny up trees to get at the fruit they love. Just don’t ask him about the giant panda. “As soon as you tell someone you work with giant pandas, they say, ‘That’s fantastic! I wish I could do that,’ ” McShea says with a deep sigh. “They say, ‘Oh, it’s so cute!’ ”

It’s not that McShea doesn’t like pandas — as a wildlife ecologist at the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute it’s his job to study wild pandas to aid the bears’ keepers at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C — he just doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. In a TEDx Talk McShea gave in 2014, titled “A Sickness Called Panda Love,” he turned Yogi on his head, describing the species as just an “average bear.” After all, pandas spend almost all of their waking hours sitting around eating bamboo, a plant so ill-suited to their digestive systems that they have to eat 20 to 40 pounds of it a day to get the nutrition they need.

“They are not high-octane animals,” McShea deadpans. “If you watch these webcams with the giant pandas at the National Zoo, it could really be on a loop — they are doing the same thing over and over.” What pandas are good at, however, is drawing attention to the need for conservation — a topic McShea is passionate about. “The Chinese have made 65 reserves for pandas, but there are many other animals in those reserves that are just amazing,” he says. “The fact that we made these panda reserves means all of these other species are coming along for the ride.”

Despite being the “Panda Guy” at the National Zoo, McShea takes an unsentimental view toward wildlife conservation. He doesn’t do cute and cuddly. “I like animals that inspire a little fear in me, that have a little moxie to them,” he says. For him, the thrill of conservation is getting inside the head of another species to understand how it lives. That alone makes the diversity of the world worth saving. “I am a science guy who happened to luck into the conservation biology world,” he says. “All of these animals have a role to play. If we want to keep living in this world, we’ve got to save all of its parts.”

A panda at the National Zoo feasts on bamboo. Pandas consume 20 to 40 pounds of bamboo per day.
McShea grew up in an urban environment, on Long Island just outside New York City. “I am not one of these people who grew up with a butterfly collection at age 5 and could name 100 ant species by age 11,” he says. When he came to Bucknell, he admits, he chose the Animal Behavior Program thinking it would be a relatively easy major. Working with squirrel monkeys and baboons in the primate center, however, he quickly learned the opposite. “You sit there with your notebook and take your observations to try and figure out what’s going on in there and find out your opinions were all wrong, and it’s all much more complicated,” he says. “It was an eye-opener.”

He quickly fell in love with the challenge. “You are telling a story about the animals — but you have to convert that story into a set of numbers,” he says. “It’s not just Floppy did this and Junior did this; it’s that they spent so many minutes doing this, so many minutes doing that. You are using math to ask, ‘Can you think like a squirrel monkey or a baboon or a giant panda,’ and it turns out you can!”

McShea wrote his thesis and dissertation on rodents, including work on placing small transmitters inside them to follow them back to their burrows. He ended up at the National Zoo when the Smithsonian wanted to acquire a platypus and hoped that McShea’s work tracking down underground animals would help them find one and keep it alive. The zoo never did get its platypus, but it got McShea, who joined the conservation institute in 1986 and began working on other species, including the star-nosed mole, a blind rodent that uses electrical charges from its eponymous proboscis to track down earthworms for food.

Other species followed, including endangered deer and bears in Southeast Asia. McShea has continued to pioneer new uses for technology, including setting up cameras to remotely photograph hard-to-track wildlife. “My colleagues and I have over 6 million wildlife images that can be seen at,” he says.

When the zoo asked if he wanted to go to China to study giant pandas, he leapt at the chance to learn about a new animal. Despite his sarcasm about the species, he does ultimately understand the panda’s appeal. “It’s primarily how big and cuddly they are,” he says. “The big eyes, the big round ears, the almost grin they have on their faces — they just look like something that could be hugged.” The animal’s constant need for bamboo, however, has put a strain on its existence as civilization has encroached on its habitat, isolating the hills where its favorite food grows.

McShea has helped to build panda corridors to allow the animals to move between the various reserves the Chinese government has set up, analyzing the natural migration patterns of the animals to build them in places where the pandas will use them. “You can draw lines on a map and say that’s the panda corridor, but pandas don’t read signs,” he says. “You need to ask where the pandas want the corridors to be.”

Saving the photogenic panda, of course, has the ancillary benefit of helping to save a whole lot of other species, like the gorgeous golden pheasant — or the impressive goat-like takin, one of those animals that shows the moxie McShea respects. “It’s like 800, 900 pounds, and built like a gorilla in front — it can run up a hillside just like that, and you are lumbering up after it,” he says, enthusiastically. Figuring out what animals like that need, and helping give it to them so they can survive to impress future generations is what gives McShea his own moxie.

Years after discovering the power of observation at Bucknell, he is still inspired by the challenge of pulling back the curtain just a little bit more between the animal world and our own. One of his newest projects is to count the number of feral cats in Washington, D.C., which might be decimating bird populations in the city.

“Someone says, ‘I have no idea how many cats there are in D.C.,’ and I can say, That’s doable; we can get that,’ ” he says. “I can do a study, identifying individual cats and estimating the number of feral cats out there. And in the end, you know something you didn’t know before.”