I’ve been away from the San Diego Zoo for a while, but the intervening months have brought many changes to the San Diego Zoo and, of course, to “our” pandas. Coming back to work has given me fresh eyes, almost like a guest, and the Zoo is truly an even more remarkable place than I remember.
The first thing that struck me in early May was the construction. If you haven’t been here since last summer, it’s time for another visit. There’s a new Mercado in front of the freshly opened facade of the Reptile House, our Galápagos tortoises are being moved into their wonderful new quarters, and our dining options are more diverse than ever. Familiar services, like the Camera Den, have been shifted and improved—all in all, a brighter and more exciting look to our nearly 94-year-old facility.
With all of these changes, though, the core of the Giant Panda Research Station—the wonderful bears—have remained pretty much the same. Bai Yun is still the supermom that she’s always been, even mellower, if that’s possible. Gao Gao, in his off-exhibit enclosure, is doing his 19-year-old-panda-male thing of eating and sleeping. With the exception of his seasonal interest in the pandas ladies, he is reminding me of a young Shi Shi, content with his solitude and bamboo. Gao is, however, ever cooperative with his keepers and the research staff (coincidentally, mostly female).
Su Lin is all grown up now and reminds me, in her overt behavior, more and more of Bai Yun at the same age. Su still retains the sensitivity of her father, but Mom’s mellowness seems to win out in her disposition. Zhen Zhen remains a piece of work, as they say. As wild as Su Lin could be in one of her “moods,” it seems to be a more permanent state for ZZ, more common than not. She appears to be more of a blend of her sister, Su, and her brother, Mei Sheng; could this be a more assertive female as she matures, or will she outgrow her rambunctious ways?
The biggest surprise for me was Yun Zi. Still super easygoing, with an experienced mother that has fussed less over each subsequent cub, he’s much different than brother Mei Sheng at the same age. Even when he wants his mother’s attention, he’s less persistent and more willing to entertain himself—the most self-possessed youngster of them all. I’ve wondered if, in fact, this was going to be the cub most like his grandfather, the great Pan Pan: large and serene, and all “take care of business.” Since Yun Zi is only approaching his first birthday, it will be awhile before we know, but as always, it’s going to be fun to watch.
Ellie Rosenbaum is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo.