Panda Keeper Day, Part 2

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Yun Zi has fun every day!

Be sure to read Panda Keeper’s Day.

Ideally, there are two keepers who start the morning shift at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station, but sometimes scheduling permits only one. The panda care team also has a late keeper, the shift varying throughout the year as daylight and the Zoo’s operating hours change. Currently, the late keeper arrives at 8:30 a.m. and may participate in the panda hearing study, which usually starts at 8:45.

During the panda hearing study, one keeper enters a large wooden box where a camera and sound equipment have been placed. The box is located at the end of a tunnel through which the pandas are moved. A researcher stands at a table just outside the box, monitoring the panda’s reactions to tones of different pitches. The panda is expected to rest its chin on a small platform, and then touch its nose to a round target when it hears a tone. The purpose of the study is to test the range of pitches that pandas can detect. This project was made possible by the keepers training the pandas to sit still at the chin rest and then to react to a tone.

As mentioned in my previous post, deer are also a part of the panda keeper’s responsibility. Currently, the species are western tufted deer and Siberian musk deer, housed in five different exhibits. The next priority is to service these animals. It takes one keeper nearly two hours to do the basic feeding and cleaning of these exhibits. If there is no time for additional tasks, such as providing fresh hay in their shelters, then the keeper can return later in the day. By the time the deer are serviced, it’s usually lunchtime for the early-shift keeper(s).

While one keeper is servicing the deer, the other one or two are cleaning the bedrooms to which the pandas had access overnight. Currently, we are collecting urine in Su Lin’s bedroom for hormone analysis of a maturing female. There are small holes drilled into the cement floor of the bedroom, surrounding the drain. These holes catch urine from the slight slope of the bedroom floor as the liquid moves toward the drain. Unfortunately for our purposes, she does not always urinate in the bedroom!

Preparing the pandas’ bamboo diets is the next priority. The pandas are fed three times each day. Their mid-day bamboo, evening bamboo, and the next day’s breakfast bamboo are prepared. Based on the recommendations of the Zoo’s nutritionists, each panda has a target weight range of bamboo for each feeding. The morning’s feeding is fairly heavy, because the pandas are hungry first thing. The mid-day feeding is the lightest because we want the pandas to shift later for cleaning and receipt of the last feeding, which is the heaviest because it must tide the bears over until the next morning. Each bamboo bundle contains at least three species of bamboo and is a mixture of leafy bamboo and sections of culm, the thick stems that contain a lot of starch for the bears. The completed bundles are stored in a large refrigerated cooler, along with the supply of harvested bamboo, from which the bundles are made. The bamboo is harvested by a hard-working colleague in the Horticulture Department, a full-time job!

Is Yun Zi supervising or preparing to pounce?

By this time, it is generally time for the mid-day feeding. Each bear is shifted off exhibit so that the keepers can remove feces and the morning’s bamboo and place new bamboo, biscuits, and produce. If the pond has been dirtied by the bear, it will be quickly flushed and refilled. As with the morning and later feedings, if the cub comes to the ground, he will be placed into the tunnel.

At this time, the keepers may do training with one or more of the pandas. For example, Su Lin and Zhen Zhen will be sent to China some day, and they must be habituated to their transport crate. This process includes closing the animal inside and making noise in the area and moving the crate around while observing the bear’s reaction. The process is a gradual one, so these manipulations become a normal part of the bear’s environment without undue stress. There may also be training for the hearing study. Zhen Zhen is new to the study and was often put through her paces before beginning actual data collection. Gao Gao has received some training toward the hearing study; Bai Yun was trained for the study, but needs some review, having not participated while she was busy raising Yun Zi. There are also routine behaviors that may be trained or reviewed, such as open mouth or sit or down or placing an arm into a metal sleeve in preparation for a blood draw.

Check back soon for Part 3 of a Panda Keeper’s Day!

Karen Barnes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.