Pandas: Playtime and Bamboo

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As a narrator, I watch the pandas four or five hours a day, five days a week. Talking on the microphone, answering questions, and chatting with guests keeps me busy during my shift, but I have ample time to observe the pandas while I’m talking, so I get to see some interesting behaviors.

Bai Yun plays with her cub, but we don’t see this behavior every day, so it is special to watch the two tussle with each other. One morning Bai Yun was in a playful mood and solicited interaction with Yun Zi. She played the same way I’ve seen dogs interact with one another. Bai Yun reared back and came down, keeping her forelegs stiff, bouncing in front of Yun Zi and inviting him to play. They rolled in the grass and bit at each other.

Sometimes Bai Yun holds onto the cub, flipping him this way and that, and biting him all over. These are play bites, of course, and he seldom complains. Sometimes he gets out of Mom’s grasp and runs away a few feet, then he comes right back for more. Yun Zi is like all the cubs (especially Mei Sheng) and bites on his mom whenever he is next to her. The cub gets a mouthful of fur and loose skin and tugs and twists as hard as he can. Mom ignores him unless he goes for her ears; ears are off-limits, and she swats him away. Not hard to imagine why, as those ears aren’t as tough as the rest of her. The keepers are always providing enrichment for Bai Yun, but there is nothing like a cub to enrich her days.

Sometimes I see cubs do pretty remarkable things that demonstrate their intelligence. The other afternoon our pandas had fresh bamboo. Bai Yun was sitting by the tree on the far left side of the enclosure. Yun Zi likes to carry his bamboo up to the hammock, but the redesign of the enclosure had removed the branch he used to get up to the flat rock. He picked up a long, skinny culm (the jointed stem of the bamboo) with lots of branches and looked over the situation. He carried the bamboo in his mouth and dragged it all the way across the front of the enclosure. When he got to the right side, he climbed the new diagonal tree trunk and up over the tall stump. With the bamboo still in his mouth, he transferred to a long branch on the elm tree and climbed down the branch until he reached his hammock with his prize.

Yun Zi is eating a lot more bamboo than he was only about a month ago. He likes the crunchy, pencil-sized branches and is eating leaves and narrow pieces of the big stuff, timber bamboo, that he finds in Bai Yun’s leftovers. Yun Zi really likes the leafeater biscuits and tries to get to some of them before Mom does. The keepers place a few biscuits (along with a few carrot, yam, and apple slices) on the logs, branches, and rocks, scattering the goodies so the pandas have a foraging experience much like in the wild. Watching the little fellow pick up and hold the treats in his paws and put them in his mouth always fascinates me. It’s all instinct, and he does it so well. Now that Yun Zi is eating the treats, the keepers have increased the amount they put out. The leafeater, or folivore, biscuits are a reddish color and shaped like a domino. Lighter than a dog biscuit, they are crunchy and not very flavorful. (Yes, I’ve tried them.)

Each day with the pandas is special, and I never get bored watching them. Best of all, I get to share my enthusiasm with all the panda fans who love them as much as I do.

Chris Tratnyek is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Attraction.