Weaning Zhen Zhen: Step 1

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Yesterday, February 2, 2009, marked the first day we closed the doors between giant panda Bai Yun and her fourth cub, Zhen Zhen. From 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., the two were separated, each to their own exhibit. This is the first step of a gradual progression toward the weaning of Zhen, facilitating her social and nutritional independence from her mother.

The previous week of acclimation to the new exhibit space, formerly occupied by a rotation of either Gao Gao or Su Lin, went very well. Zhen took to the space with her usual exhuberance. No nook or cranny was left unexplored, no tree unclimbed. As expected, she enjoyed the new surroundings and spent a lot of time in the area resting and playing, with and without her mother.

Yesterday, she did notice that the door was closed. She checked the separation door and the door to her bedroom area a few times, as if to confirm that she wasn’t able to go through. Keepers report she did not appear anxious, but motored about her exhibit a bit, playing occasionally, before settling into a nap. Since nursing sessions with a cub of this age generally occur at about one bout per 24 hours, there isn’t much nutritional impact of these separations from Zhen Zhen’s perspective. The social separation is also not unusual, given that Zhen often removes herself from mom’s grasp by climbing high to rest for several hours. As a result, we didn’t anticipate this first step would be a difficult one for either bear.

For her part, Bai Yun noticed the closed door as well. However, within a few short minutes she returned to doing what she is ready to do now full-time: taking care of Bai Yun.

We will continue to hold at this step for several days until we are sure that both bears are appropriately adjusted.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo.