When a pair of giant pandas landed in Toronto for a brief visit in 1985, they rode in the same part of the plane as the passengers.

And when the pandas were moved to the Toronto Zoo from the airport, they were driven to their temporary home.

Oliver Claffey was a member of the team of zookeepers that looked after Qing Qinq and Quan Quan when they arrived in Toronto in 1985.

"I had never seen them in the wild before until one of them was put in the back of my van," Claffey told CBC News in an interview on Sunday.

When he was driving to the zoo along Highway 401, Claffey said he looked back and saw a panda looking at him in his rear-view mirror.

 

"It was just a great feeling," Claffey recalled.

Hundreds of thousands of people came to visit the pandas during their brief stay nearly 28 years ago. Claffey said he enjoyed interacting with the public in those days, helping tell the story of the pandas.

"The keepers are the link between the animal and the visitors, so they would ask you all sorts of questions … it was a fun time," he said.

For that initial visit, the pandas arrived in Toronto in July of 1985 and went home in early November. The zoo tried to extend the visit, but could not do so.

Will a panda be born in the city?

This time around, Claffey is retired, but he is still excited about the pending arrival of Er Shun and Da Mao, the two giant pandas that are coming to stay in Canada for the next 10 years.

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A shot of a panda during the 1985 exhibit in Toronto. (Rosanne Mac Cormick)

The 1985 visit

Read more about how the pandas travelled to Toronto almost three decades ago and watch CBC reports that were filed at the time.

"It’s just wonderful that they are actually coming back in Toronto," he said.

The pandas will spend their first five years at the Toronto Zoo, before moving to Calgary for the five years after that.

Er Shun and Da Mao are due to arrive at Toronto's Pearson International Airport on Monday. FedEx is bringing them over on a special charter that has been dubbed the Panda Express.

Claffey thinks that with a longer stay, there’s a good chance the pandas could produce offspring.

"This time, it's a long-term loan and I suspect that with the knowledge that we have and the staff we have at the Toronto Zoo — they’ll breed and that’s the idea," he said.

With files from the CBC's Natalie Kalata