Now that Yun Zi has his official name, what’s ahead for our boy? Currently he is taking “baby steps,” crawling and walking out of the den, either by himself or with the “help” of Bai Yun. As with every panda cub born here at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station, it is very important that the keepers establish a strong bond with the little ones. Yun Zi is at a perfect age to begin socialization training. He can see, smell, and hear, and is beginning to walk and make attempts to explore the world outside of his den.
For keepers, the first stage of “class” begins with us just hanging outside the den and having a chat with him. Of course, Bai Yun is out in the off-exhibit area happily eating, and we do have a door separating us from her during these sessions. In this phase, we want Yun Zi to get familiar with our voices and smells while staying in the security of his den. We don’t pull him out of the den (exams are the exception) during this stage, but would rather he come to us to “check us out.” It is very important that we create a positive environment in our encounters with him. Eventually it will pay off when he makes the choice to come to us and is not forced.
Another phase of panda cub school is to get him used to coming and going from the exhibit to his bedroom. Bai is just now starting to drag him out to the transfer tunnel area. On occasion, she leaves him in the tunnel while she goes out to the exhibit to eat bamboo. We take this opportunity to interact with him; we go into the tunnel area and show him the way back to his bedroom. From my experiences with four other panda cubs, this stage is quickly learned. Knowing where his bedroom is can come in handy for Yun Zi when Bai is moving too fast and he finds himself alone in the tunnel. We try to familiarize him with his new world of transfer tunnels, going out to the exhibit, and coming off exhibit at the end of the day. All of these things are basic panda management that he will learn during his “kindergarten” days. Bai Yun is very comfortable with these sessions, as she has a strong bond of trust with her keepers. It really helps make the job so much easier!
As Yun Zi matures, he will be able to follow his mother back and forth from the exhibit to the bedroom on a daily basis. At this point, Bai will take over as teacher, but the keepers will still interact with Yun Zi to keep the bond going. We have a great track record with our panda cubs over the years. As the bond between cub and keeper grows, the cub becomes more secure and confident and will be able to deal with the day-to-day life at our Panda Station. When the weaning process begins, the separation from mother is easier due to the already established bond the youngsters have with their keepers. From then on, we become their world.
Yun Zi, like his brother and sisters before him, will pass the kindergarten phase with flying colors. What will his graduation present be? Well, his adoring fans will get to see a happy, secure little panda cub romping about his new exhibit, already prepared for his debut, and then there will be no stopping him!
Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.