Being a relief mammal keeper can be difficult. You need to be trained to work in multiple areas, remember all the safety protocols, and know how to identify individual animals, as well as build a relationship with those animals so that you work well with them and have the ability to notice when something is out of the ordinary. However, being a relief keeper also has benefits. You have the opportunity to work with a variety of animals in different areas of the San Diego Zoo, assist with training new behaviors or maintain existing ones, and be there to help wherever and whenever the department needs you. When I found out I was needed to help monitor our pregnant panda, Bai Yun, for signs of labor and later to monitor Mom and cub’s well-being, I accepted the mission. After all, it is my job! Once I found out that mission would take place overnight, from 7:30 p.m. to 4 a.m., by myself for two weeks, my mind began racing. Would I be able to stay up all night? If something went wrong, how quickly could someone back me up? Would I be able to stay up all night? How well can I work all the camera equipment?
All of those anxious feelings quickly turned to excitement about what I was going to be a part of. How many people can say that their job required them to spend 80 hours monitoring a mother panda and her brand new cub?! What an amazing 80 hours it has been! Sure, much of the time was spent watching Bai Yun sleep in the den, but all of those hours were worth it when I was fortunate to be the only keeper on duty the first time Bai Yun left the den, giving me and anyone else watching Panda Cam the very first look at the new cub! I will never forget that moment: Monday, July 30, at 9:10 p.m.
I noticed Bai Yun re-positioning a lot, then all of a sudden she stood up and walked out of the den, leaving the cub flailing about and squawking. I was so excited but had to do my best to contain myself in order to do my job and gather as much information as possible. First, note the time; second, work the camera to get a good look at the cub; and finally, try to figure out where Bai Yun left, why, and what time she returned. Somehow I was able to accomplish all that while being in absolute amazement of what I was witnessing. I had been hearing the tiny cub off and on, but now I was able to see it and, more importantly, see that it was doing well. Of course, Bai Yun has been a mother five times before, but I wasn’t there for those cubs; this was my first time seeing her with a newborn, watching her enormous paws and mouth so carefully embrace this 4-ounce being, and it was unforgettable.
Since that unveiling of her cub, I have had several more opportunities to see it, as well as witness her gentle care, yet every time feels like the first. While it has been a great couple of weeks sitting in front of monitors, logging hours of observations, and being part of a new life, it is time to get back to my regular schedule of more physically demanding work wherever the department needs me. I get to work in the sun again with all the other amazing animals I have missed. Being a relief keeper is a tough job, but as they say, somebody has to do it. I’m happy that somebody is me!
Jennifer Chapman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.