Weaning Zhen Zhen: Miss Independence

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Yesterday, keepers closed the doors between Bai Yun and Zhen Zhen at the regular time of approximately 4 p.m. They passed an uneventful night, feeding and resting. This morning, when Zhen saw her keepers coming to pull her off for the morning cleaning of the exhibit, something new happened.

Keepers led her into the tunnel, and began talking with her and feeding her treats. She followed them happily through our tunnel system, stopping occasionally to sniff a spot here or there. Up top, she sat on the scale patiently as keepers weighed her (at 43.2 kilos). Then she walked into her new living space, the bedroom area into which she was born so many months ago.

As all pandas do, Zhen sniffed about her to reacquaint herself with the rooms. After finding a fresh stash of bamboo, she sat right down and munched happily. She paused occasionally, as she heard Gao Gao bleating nearby. He was registering his discontent. Where were his keepers? He was usually out in the yard by that time — what was taking them so long today? He, too, was in for a change.

After the lower exhibit had been prepped by the keepers, Gao was moved down from his top bedroom to the exhibit formerly occupied by Zhen. As he passed by in the tunnel, Zhen stopped eating and approached the door separating her from her father. Keepers could hear her sniffing loudly, inhaling his scent. For his part, Gao seemed unconcerned about his daughter’s presence, but was all about marking up the tunnel as he made his way to the public viewing areas. It’s all mine, he seemed to be saying.

Zhen returned to her bamboo. She spent some time investigating her enrichment, a cinnamon-coated hanging ball, placed in her grass-laden garden room. She searched for biscuits. She sat still and listened, taking in her surroundings. She rested and she climbed. All in all, she entered into her independent life surprisingly well.

We expect that as the day wears on she might beg for some of the keeper’s attention — and they stand at the ready. Already she has had a few extra biscuits, and keepers are stopping in regularly to check on her. Even so, the general consensus is that, compared to big sister Su Lin, Zhen is handling this exceptionally well.

So far so good with Bai Yun. If she experiences any engorgement of her mammary glands due to Zhen’s abundant comfort-nursing over the last few weeks, Bai might have some discomfort for about a day or so. Soon thereafter, she will likely be showing us how content she is to be on her own, too. Thus far she has done beautifully with our separation protocol, and we are pleased to see her faring so well.

For the next few days, look for Zhen on cameras 11, 15 and 17. She may head out to the classroom exhibit in a day or so, on cameras 27-29. Gao, for his part, can be observed on cameras 1-3 for the foreseeable future, and Su Lin will be on cams 30 and 32. Bai Yun’s exhibit and cameras will remain the same.

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