Cub Gains Muscle

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Yesterday I sat in on one of the last of Yun Zi’s exams before he goes on public exhibit. We were hosting a reporter from the local newspaper, and I warned her ahead of time that as cool as you try to be in the presence of a panda cub, there’s a little part of you that is sure to melt.

For me, I mentally prepared myself not to speak in baby talk, but inevitably I let out a “oh!” when the keepers set him down for the exam and announced his weight: 19.4 pounds (8.8 kilograms).

Beth Bicknese, the senior veterinarian, and Kathy Hawk, the senior keeper, needed all four of their hands to keep hold of Yun Zi’s four paws this morning. To try to keep him occupied, Kathy kept half of an apple in her hand for the cub to smell, taste, and explore. And that worked for about 40 seconds. After that, he was trying to crawl in any direction that would free him from their attention.

Throughout the exam I had a huge smile on my face because there, just 3 feet from me, was a panda cub. *Sigh*

The keepers had set out a large piece of carpet to use as their examining area, but Yun Zi seemed to want to be anywhere but there. During earlier exams, keepers could set him down and he’d stay put – sometimes even falling asleep during the exam – but long gone are those days. Keepers could check about one area of the cub’s body before he’d wiggle away from them and crawl off. It was a constant battle of wills this morning.

He kept making low squeals or yips while Beth and Kathy inspected him. Beth started at the top of his head with a check of his eyes and ears and then worked down his little panda body. They noted that he had more teeth than he had at the last exam, and they could feel his muscles. Yun Zi has been climbing a lot more in the past few weeks and turning what was just some extra mass into muscle.

While he continued to yip, I was sure to have Beth check out his tail; that little black spot is still there. I have to say he wasn’t looking too white today—more of a pinkish/reddish color. Beth explained that this coloring is because of Bai Yun’s grooming. In addition to bamboo, Bai Yun eats a type of biscuit that contains beetroot. The red of the biscuit turns Yun Zi’s white fur a bit pinkish. So precious!

Because of the constant wiggling, crawling, and efforts to get away, the exam was short and sweet. At one point, keepers allowed Yun Zi to just crawl off in the direction of his choice, which was back toward the den. And with that we ended the exam! Of course I could have stayed there all day to watch him crawl around the room exploring the area, but it was best that he get back to Mom, who was up and ready for breakfast.

This is the last of the weekly exams for Yun Zi, and the San Diego Zoo has concluded videotaping and photographing the exams. Keepers are synchronizing Bai Yun’s feeding times with the hours that Yun Zi is awake to increase the chances that Mom will bring – and keep – baby on exhibit.

So soon you’ll be able to have your own first-hand experience of watching roly-poly Yun Zi!

Jenny Mehlow is a public relations representative for the San Diego Zoo.

Update: Due to the holidays, we have fewer Panda Cam volunteers operating the cameras. This means there are long periods when the camera is unmanned, and keepers are the only ones around to adjust the image for you. However, as you know, the keepers are very busily engaged in the care of our five pandas, other animals, research, and other keeper activities. They aren’t able to check on the camera frequently. When they do, they find a good image of a bear for you and then walk away for another period of caring for animals. For this reason, you may not see any particular panda (including Yun Zi) for some time.

Additionally, there will be times when the bear walks out of the frame and you see no animal (particularly overnight). Please do not worry. All of the bears are fine. This is a normal evolution of this process: once a cub leaves the den, he/she becomes much like any other panda here and will share the camera time with his/her family. The camera is not focused on the den nonstop, because the cub just isn’t there as often as when he was younger. Once his time there falls off precipitously, the den will be closed to him for good, just like with any of our other cubs.

CUB DEBUT UPDATE: Yun Zi’s public debut is set for Thursday, January 7. A special outdoor exhibit (the “classroom”) will be open for Zoo guests from 9 a.m. to noon, although there is no guarantee that Yun Zi will be in the yard at that time! Guest access to the classroom will be for just a few hours each morning during the next few weeks. You can continue to see Yun Zi’s siblings, Su Lin and Zhen Zhen, in their enclosures.

San Diego Zoo Panda Cub Comparisons
Hua Mei, day 146:
18.95 lbs (8.6 kg); 31 in (78.8 cm) long

Mei Sheng, day 148:
17.7 lbs (8 kg); 32 in (81.4 cm) long

Su Lin, day 147:
15.6 lbs (7 kg); 30.9 in (78.5 cm) long

Zhen Zhen, day 146:
17.4 lbs (7.9 kg); 30.3 in (77 cm) long

Yun Zi, day 146:
19.4 lbs (8.8 kg); 30.6 in (77.7 cm) long