Pandas: From Both Sides

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panda_exam9_2For a few years now, I have been a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station and have enjoyed watching pandas go through different stages in life as well as their day-to-day changes. I have always admired our keepers and researchers at the Zoo for what they do for our animals here and what they do for the conservation community. Our keepers must do cleaning and feeding on a schedule as well as be incredibly observant of their animals and noticing changes in behavior. I have been fortunate enough to be a part of that and learn valuable lessons from our Panda Team.

Several months ago I was asked if I would be interested in helping our keepers out when they were short handed and needed some help. I jumped at the opportunity! Part of a keeper’s daily routine is cleaning bedrooms and enclosures, and in that routine a trained eye comes in handy: an animal’s droppings can tell more than you think. Their diet is monitored and recorded at every feeding: how much went in and how much is left over. These bears go through different weather changes and even life changes, so keeping track of diet and weight is vital.

Every morning when I arrived I would assist with getting treats ready for the day, weighing Bai Yun and Gao Gao, and feeding bamboo out to both. Both bears were checked each day to see if behavior or physical appearance was altered at all. But I have to say that helping care for Bai Yun with her new baby has been a major highlight! Kathy Hawk (senior keeper) has been with Bai Yun since she came to San Diego in 1996, and watching them interact together shows how much our keepers really put into our animals’ welfare. Every morning Bai Yun appeared at the window of her bedroom ready for her breakfast; she knows to go inside so we can clean her sun rooms and put out breakfast and is so patient.

Each bear has their own personality, and working around Su Lin and Zhen Zhen has only reaffirmed this for me. Su Lin was the first cub I have watched grow from start to present day, and standing next to her with only a fence between us reminds me how much time has gone by. Su Lin often will play “hard to get” to come into her bedroom, but then again some days she can’t wait to go inside. Cleaning the front enclosures, you see and look for things that sometimes you may not notice looking from the guests’ point of view. Su Lin has a knack for being rather hard on the tree in her exhibit. While cleaning, we look at the plants growing and the climbing structures and make sure that there is nothing in the exhibit that Su Lin can remodel.

Zhen Zhen still blows me away when I realize that in just two years she has grown so much. Her evening bamboo is usually spread around the exhibit, and for some reason she loves to leave her droppings in the most difficult places for us to get to. I’ve always joked that she makes keepers work that much harder for a truly clean enclosure, and even though she has never encountered her father, we do see some behaviors that are so similar to her father, Gao Gao. Seeing these behaviors from the narrator’s point of view is one thing, but actually working with a bear while she performs these behaviors is even better!

Overall, these bears are truly amazing to watch up close, and working with a great staff has made the experience even better. All I have to say to our loyal followers on the panda blog posts and Panda Cam is that you have nothing to worry about: our keepers are and will continue to watch over the bears.

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo.