China Trip Diary: Part 1

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Keeper Juli Borowski offers bamboo through the traveling crate.

Giant pandas Su Lin and Zhen Zhen moved to Wolong, China on September 24, 2010. Gaylene accompanied them on their journey and is sharing the trip with us through blog installments.

I did my best to suppress some of the excitement in my voice as I answered “Yes” to the question put before me by San Diego Zoo Associate Curator Curby Simerson in August 2010: “Would you be willing to accompany the pandas on their trip to China?” My efforts to minimize an overly eager reply manifested into a short, quick, loud, “Yes!” It was an honor and privilege to be offered this unique assignment. The many details of it had yet to be worked out, resulting in several months of anxiety and hesitancy to make any personal travel plans.

The daily responsibilities of an animal care supervisor, much to my disappointment, do not always involve direct interaction with animals. This new assignment, however, created an important purpose for me to regularly meet with Su Lin and Zhen Zhen! The many travels to and from my office in the Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station were diverted by a greeting, and often a biscuit feeding, to my future travel companions. I worked directly with the keepers to gradually introduce the elements associated with travel to Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. My confidence in the success of the event was boosted by comments the panda keepers made regarding their comfort in me being the one to accompany the pandas to China.

Panda and traveling crate get a lift!

The sensitivity to noises and new environmental conditions that Su Lin exhibited created an escalated level of concern for the keepers and me. We proceeded very cautiously and slowly to acclimate both pandas to their travel crates and to the forklift that would be moving them. Chomping on bamboo while being in a crate lifted four feet above the ground is a good sign! Su Lin and Zhen Zhen were champs in their training to accept the machinery and activity associated with their upcoming travels. The travel crates were modified to allow doors on each end to securely be cracked open for emergency and cleaning access. The keepers and I worked with the two pandas to allow the use of a small rake to clean the crates while the pandas continued to eat.

Consider the tasks associated with preparing for an international trip, and then consider those same tasks combined with the responsibility of packing for two giant pandas. I consulted with Lead Keeper Lisa Bryant, who had a successful trip to China with Mei Sheng in 2007 (read the first of Lisa’s blog post installments on that trip, Mei Sheng, Our Precious Cargo).

I also consulted with Senior Keeper Kathy Hawk, who has an intuitive understanding of the pandas in her care. Honey, hand-picked bamboo culm, small enrichment cardboard boxes, five gallons of drinking water, favorite enrichment toys, leaf eater biscuits, apples, yams, and carrot pieces comprised the bulk of the pandas’ luggage.

Gaylene Thomas is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo.