Panda Cub Care

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panda_exam6_1Hello again, panda fans! It seems that the birth our newest cub has sparked the interest and curiosity of people all around the world. An increasing number of people are calling the San Diego Zoo, sending letters, and posting questions on our blog site. Never fear, your favorite keeper is here (humbly, of course)! Your questions range from “How is Bai taking care of her cub?” to “What was Su Lin doing on the Panda Cam the other morning?” It’s a wide scope and I won’t be able to answer all of them at once, but I will do my best.

First and foremost, Bai Yun is being a wonderful mother, as always. This is my first time with a panda cub, so I’m nervous every time she covers him with bamboo or leaves him on the floor of the bedroom; but Bai is an experienced mom, and she knows what she’s doing. Like any mother who’s had multiple offspring, Bai seems to become more confident in her parenting skills with each cub. When Hua Mei, her firstborn, was a cub, Bai was right there to check on her and to hold her every time she squeaked or moved. With her fifth cub, Bai knows that if she feeds him at a certain time, he’ll fall asleep long enough to let her eat a good meal.

Several people have asked about the bamboo nest in Bai’s cubbing den. Part of being a good mom is providing safe shelter for your offspring; the nest in the den is Bai Yun’s handiwork. About one month before a cub is born, Bai is given access to her birthing den. Keepers cut her normal bamboo diet into 2- or 3-foot lengths (instead of the usual 5- or 6-foot lengths), short enough for her to comfortably carry into the den. In the few weeks before she gives birth, Bai Yun shreds and arranges bamboo to make a soft, warm nest for her cub.

We keepers glance into the den opportunistically to inspect her work. We pull out extra-thick pieces or anything that looks like it’s dangerously sharp. Bai Yun does a wonderful job nest-building, though, and most of her work is left untouched. This is why the bamboo in the den looks dry: once the cub is born, she discontinues her nest-building and focuses all of her energy on feeding her cub and keeping him warm. Bamboo is very low in nutritional value, and a panda can really only afford to focus its energy on one task at a time. This is especially true with mother bears, which do not leave the den for any reason (including eating and drinking) for days at a time before and after the birth of a cub.

When a cub begins to grow, when it begins to nurse and subsequently nap regularly, and when it has its own hair to keep itself warm, the mother can leave the den long enough to eat or drink. Her appetite slowly increases. At first, she eats only one or two bites before returning to her den. However, it has been many weeks since the birth of Bai Yun’s boy, and she is now eating almost at much bamboo as she was during the middle of her pregnancy. She leaves the cub alone in the den to take a good nap while she eats. The cub is now 21 inches (52 centimeters) long, and the little den is getting to be a bit crowded with both Mom and baby in there, so sometimes Bai takes her own naps outside of the den.

Once the cub starts to get larger, Bai will move him outside of the den to encourage him before he’s mobile enough to follow her and leave on his own. At this point in time, even if Bai Yun leaves her cub alone in the den, if he makes one little squeak or cry, Bai immediately stops whatever she is doing. Her ears perk up, she turns toward the den, and attends to her cub.

I hope this information helps. I’m very excited to see how many people read these blog posts and watch our pandas every day. Thank you for your curiosity and for your interest. One of the most important things a keeper can do for their animals is to educate others and to, hopefully, inspire them to learn about and to help the species (in this case, endangered species) that need us.

Juli Borowski is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Here’s video of the cub’s 6th exam.