Panda Family Reunion?

As a part of his training regime, staff has been asking young Yun Zi to traverse through some of the tunnels in the San Diego Zoo’s panda facility. At this time, the objective is to get him into an area where he can be viewed by veterinarians (no more hands-on exams for this bundle of energy!) and administered his regularly scheduled vaccinations. As a part of this training process, Yun Zi is sometimes in an area of the tunnel where he can peer into the exhibit currently housing his father, Gao Gao.

The other day, visitors to the Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station and Panda Cam viewers saw Yun Zi and his father looking at each other through this tunnel/exhibit space near the back of the facility. The two bears were separated by multiple chain-linked fences and an open space of approximately eight feet. There was no opportunity for physical contact between them, and their visual contact was brief.

We do not intend to open the howdy door between Gao Gao and Bai Yun/Yun Zi for the safety and security of all involved. In the past, our practice has been to ensure that the security of Bai Yun’s space—while she is managing dependent young—is not intruded upon by any other bear in order to avoid any undue stress to Mom or cub.

While it may have been enriching for both Yun Zi and Gao to see each other, and we know that Gao Gao’s temperament falls on the gentle side of the spectrum for adult male pandas, we cannot predict what Bai Yun’s reaction might be if we give Gao Gao visual access to her space. Remember: adult bears are solitary outside of the breeding season. Bai Yun has even shown us that if given access to the male when she is not breeding-ready, aggressive behavior from her is a likely result. This is a natural, defensive response. We wouldn’t want to risk such aggression in the presence of her cub.

The possibility exists that Gao Gao might also display aggression with the cub. Though those of us who know him might not expect this of our patriarch, it cannot be ruled out. Perhaps someday, when Yun Zi is weaned and more capable and confident, we might be able to try a howdy door encounter for these two. In the near future, however, any interactions between them will be purely coincidental and at a safe distance.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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