Panda Family Update

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Su Lin

Keeper Angie Fiore took time out of her busy day to give me an update on our popular panda family, so here goes…

Everything is status quo with Gao Gao, our adult male panda; he is healthy and seems content. Like most adult pandas, Gao prefers spending time on the ground, rather than up high in the trees, eating and resting. However, the Panda Team hopes to train this gentleman bear for participation in the on-going panda hearing study (see post Su Lin: Hitting the High Notes).

Keeper Juli Borowski has been working with Gao Gao on the beginning stages of training for participation in the study, but Gao has proved to be a “challenging” student. I got to see Gao’s training area, and Angie explained that Juli is teaching him to place his chin on a small metal shelf they call the “chin rest” that is placed in a section of the chain-link tunnel Gao normally walks through to get from the bedroom area to his outdoor space. Apparently, Gao doesn’t like to sit too long in one spot, but he is making progress! The next step is to learn to touch the red target, located next to the chin rest, with his nose.

Zhen Zhen spends her time next door to her father in what we call the “classroom” exhibit and is having a blast! Angie says everything is a game for this busy two year old, and Zhen has been enjoying some of the new toys purchased by panda fans (see post We Tried). She, too, is being trained for the hearing study and is proving to be a quick learner (no surprise!).

Zhen Zhen can be a little brutal on the vegetation, and a tree-trimming crew worked on her exhibit just a few days ago. Apparently, Zhennie found the crew just as entertaining to watch, and although she was in the back area, she dashed through her tunnels and bedrooms to view the action and “flirt” with the crew. Size-wise, Zhen has almost caught up to her father: she now weighs 148 pounds (67.3 kilograms) compared to Gao Gao’s steady weight of about 163 pounds (74 kilograms).

I hate to bring this up, but we all know that Su Lin will be moving to China sometime this year (no date has been set yet). In preparation for her move, keepers have started Su Lin’s crate training. It’s so important that an animal is comfortable in its travel crate before a move, and of course we want Su Lin’s trip to be stress-free. Angie showed me the long chain-link tunnel Su Lin takes from the main viewing exhibit to the crate, which has been placed at the back of the facility (it even includes a flight of stairs!). Thanks to her experience in the small sound-proof “room” used for the hearing study, our star student has had no qualms about entering the travel crate and having the keeper close the door once she is in it. The next step will be for the keeper to make different noises around the crate while Su is inside. Once she is comfortable with that, the keepers will jiggle the crate a bit to simulate movement. The last step in the training will be practicing lifting the crate with a forklift while Su Lin is inside. Between her hearing study and crate training, Miss Su, now at 183 pounds (83 kilgorams), is one busy panda!

Yun Zi and his mother, Bai Yun, continue to thrive and delight both keepers, Zoo guests, and Panda Cam viewers! Now eight months old, Yun Zi weighed 33 pounds (15.1 kilograms) on April 6 and, according to Angie, is getting to be quite a handful, as he views his keepers as play objects during exhibit-cleaning time! He is still nursing, but is also mouthing bamboo and has even ingested some bamboo leaves, as seen in the “deposits” he leaves behind. Bai is such a great mother and really seems to enjoy playing with her little boy (she is not nearly as playful when by herself).

And speaking of play, Angie showed me more of the new toys the pandas will receive as we attempt another photo session later this week. There is never a dull moment for pandas and their keepers, and Angie and the rest of the panda keepers thank all of you for your support!

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor and the blog moderator for the San Diego Zoo.