After months of cool, cloudy days and nights, a mere peep of sunshine along the coast every few days, and San Diego Zoo guests sporting new fleeces and sweatshirts, the weather abruptly shifted to very un-San Diego-like heat and humidity within just a day or two. This sudden change has slowed everyone down, including our well-furred giant pandas. It causes a shift of routine for the keepers as well, as the formerly unnecessary misting fans were cleaned and activated, and ice- and water-based enrichment items moved to the fore. Ice blocks and fruit- and veggie-sicles are replacing dry or land-based treats, and Yun Zi’s favorite “surfer pad,” the rectangular Boomer block, appears in the pool.
But, alas, for the pandas it’s been a lazy time, at least during the morning hours. Mother and cub napped most of Friday morning as the sun continued to rise in the sky, shifting position as the temperature rose and the shadows shifted. Su Lin disappeared into her cool, quiet corner, and even Zhen Zhen was subdued. Along with these changes came our guests’ weather-related questions about the pandas; so, lest you be concerned about the well-being of our bears, I’ll answer some now!
While pandas now live at elevations above about 4,000 feet (1,200 meters), their historical range covered large areas of China, including temperate areas, so they are pretty adaptable in the wild to warmer weather, moving to shadier or higher places to stay cool. Here at the Zoo, their enclosures at the Giant Panda Research Station are deliberately located in a cool canyon to catch the breezes on a daily cycle. In addition, they have their pools, the misting fans, and even air conditioning, should the need arise. The keepers monitor them carefully throughout the day and provide the cooling enrichment items mentioned above.
Pandas are covered year-round with 3 to 4 inches (7 to 10 centimeters) of thick, coarse fur and do not shed appreciably in the warmer months. They also do not sweat, so a higher respiration rate and panting are employed to dissipate some of the excess body heat, similar to what your dog would do on, well, the “dog days” of summer. And like your furry pets, they just plain slow down in the heat and humidity, tending to get more active as the sun drops below the tree line above Panda Canyon. A good tip for visitors: 9 a.m., if the weather is warm, or late in the day are the best times to see some activity, but there are no guarantees; just like us, the pandas’ appetites can drop off in the heat and even a chilled bamboo “salad bar” can lose its appeal. But remember that there’s always the air-conditioned bedroom option available to these rare and precious creatures.
Ellie Rosenbaum is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo.