A Yun Zi Story

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I am not sure I have ever seen something as cute as a baby panda. Of course, baby anything is adorable, but this is even beyond that. I have been caring for each of the San Diego Zoo’s giant pandas for over three years now, and I have seen them breed, give birth, and grow into their own unique individual selves. Most often each day is fairly routine in regard to their care and training. Every so often, however, certain days make an impression on me and my fellow keepers.

On this particular day, Yun Zi displayed some very comical and endearing behaviors that reminded us how purely playful and entertaining these babies are. This was a very wet day. The rain had held off most of the morning, so we had decided to give Bai Yun and Yun Zi access to the outside enclosure. However, it started to rain before we had a chance to bring the bears back inside. Little Yun Zi just experienced his first real “rain day,” and I think he liked it! How do I know this? Here’s the clue…

As the rain continued, it collected in the bottom of the moat area along the edges of the enclosure. The tall landscaped brick wall that stretches across the front of the enclosure was muddy, slippery, and very steep. Keepers only trek that wall under favorable and necessary circumstances. But on this day, Yun Zi would change the rules! Shortly after the heavy rain started, he nonchalantly made his way down the wall and planted himself in the furthest, wettest corner of the moat. This was not his normal place to “hang out,” and why he picked the rainiest day of the year to go there, we will probably never know.

Once there, though, he happily played with a tuft of grass, ignoring any and all attempts we made to entice him back up the wall. He was soaking wet, completely happy, and playing with the most simple of toys: a few green strands of muddy grass. We all laughed at the irony of that! Here we have many fancy toys for his choosing, and he would rather play with a tuft of grass.

Well, after adoring him for a while, we all concurred that someone had to go get him out of the moat. I got nominated to climb down the wall, in the rain, and retrieve this venturesome bear. This meant picking him up by the scruff (as his mother does) and caring his then 19 pounds (8.6 kilograms) up the steep, slippery wall. I was less than thrilled to do this in the rain. As I made my way down the slope, Yun Zi was watching me closely as I slowly approached him. I saw his wide eyes as I got closer, and I suddenly realized that I was wearing a bright yellow rubber rain suit that he had probably never witnessed before. It obviously made him think that I was a big, scary, yellow monster coming to get him!

I didn’t want to scare the black off of him, so I surmised that the quicker this was over with, the better for both of us. I curled my hand around the back of his neck and scruffed him. I then supported his back end with my other hand and balanced each step back up the wall. Naturally he was wiggling and trying to bite my supporting arm with his small teeth. He does have great pressure in his jaws, but not enough to cause any damage through my rain jacket. As I reached the top, I handed him off to my fellow keeper, who also struggled to contain his feisty body. Yun Zi was gently put into the tunnel leading into the den to reunite with his mom, Bai Yun. I think she was happy for the help we provided in retrieving her youngster. After a look of disapproval at the monsters, Yun Zi sauntered into his den and continued playing with bamboo sticks for some time.

It doesn’t take much to entertain a baby panda. It also doesn’t take much for us to fall in love with a baby panda.

Heidi Trowbridge is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Fossa Milestones.