Zoo Hospital: A Panda Patient

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Gao Gao

Hey, Hospital Keepers!  Guess who’s coming to spend the night?

Recently, we had a special overnight guest at the San Diego Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine. Gao Gao, one of our giant Pandas, took a routine “trip to the dentist,” and then had a sleepover with us. This visit involved coordination and communication between many parties: panda keepers, hospital staff, security officers, and construction crews.

Construction crews? Yep. Panda Canyon is going through quite the transformation. The Zoo’s Veterinary Services Department was instrumental in facilitating completion of a major phase in the Panda Trek project. By allowing Gao Gao to remain at the hospital following his scheduled procedure, panda keepers were able to use remote holding areas in the Giant Panda Research Station to house the remaining pandas as far away as possible from the impact of the construction activities.

To safely transport him to the hospital, Gao was injected with an anaesthetic while resting comfortably in his bedroom. Once he was sound asleep, Security Department staff cleared the way, and Gao was whizzed up the hill to the hospital. During a routine exam to assess his overall dental health, Gao received a full dental exam and cleaning. But when an animal is on the table, especially a panda, everything is checked. Head to toe, or in his case, nose to tail! These exams provide great opportunities to follow up on health conditions and to monitor changes that might have popped up over time. Measurements were recorded; radiographs were taken; eyes, ears, and other things were investigated; and nails were buffed…really!

Gao Gao’s keepers came up during his exam to check on the patient, of course, but more importantly to bring up some familiar items and set up his “home away from home.” During his short stay at the hospital, Gao had one inside room and one outside room, along with a tunnel leading to his transport crate. Once his exam was over and our sleepy VIP (Very Important Panda) was awake enough and ready to investigate his overnight accommodations, I gave him access to leave his crate and explore his new space.

Would the red carpet treatment meet his standards? Would he shift back in to his transport crate so he could go home tomorrow? Would he be comfortable enough to take his medicated biscuits and other treats from me? Would he settle in well enough to eat his dinner and get a good night’s sleep? I am happy to answer with a resounding YES to all the above.

Upon release Gao didn’t do too much exploring; he just walked out of his crate like a pro, down the tunnel, took one slow, sauntering lap around the outdoor room, glancing at and smelling things half-heartedly before entering the indoor room, turning around and plopping down in the doorway with his head resting on the threshold. Panda keepers would call to check in, and I’d report that other than “pouting” a little bit, Gao was doing just fine.

Our “house guest” was very well-behaved considering the eventful day he had and the crowd of admirers he drew into the hospital compound. “Panda” was whispered more than once, and I was reminded of the spell that was cast over me when I worked with these magical creatures years ago as a keeper. Maybe it was nostalgia on my part, or maybe he did remember me a little, or maybe he is just a really well-trained panda, but Gao Gao got up and came right over when I called him and was content to sit in his crate and let me hand-feed him.

Once dinner was over, and I started closing up shop, Gao knew it was time to go to bed. He slowly made his way back to his bedroom, curled up in his big pile of shavings and hay, and went to sleep. The next morning, Gao peeked his head out when I greeted him and was soon “reminding” me that he hadn’t had his breakfast yet. “Excuse me, lady. What kind of establishment is this?” I’ll have you know that we start our day at 6:30 a.m., not the usual 6 a.m. of his keepers, so according to him we were already behind schedule! Please forgive us, Mr. Panda, sir.

After he had eaten his breakfast, and once it was confirmed that the construction was done, Gao was called in to his crate and rewarded with some treats and love from his keepers. The crate doors were closed, and after everything was secured we wheeled him onto the back of a truck. Gao knew it was time to head home; he was ready and waiting patiently. But as the truck was pulling away, Gao was looking out the back watching us wave at him. As he rounded the corner to go down the hill and back to his home, Gao moved his head closer to the bars as if to say to his keepers, “Home, James” and to us “Thanks for your Hospital-ity!”

Kirstin Clapham is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Zoo Hospital: Eat Your Food.