At the first panda cub exam last week, our staff had a very brief, three-minute opportunity to examine the cub and get some data on its weight and health status. The first exam is always very short, as we are keen on ensuring the well-being of Bai Yun by not keeping her away from her cub longer than is comfortable for her. During last week’s exam, the cub was very vocal, and Bai Yun certainly noticed. This made it all the more imperative to move quickly.
In anticipation of a second exam, the husbandry staff has been acclimating our little panda to their presence and touch, with the goal of making the cub more comfortable with being handled. A more comfortable cub is a less vocal cub. A less vocal cub means that mother bear is more relaxed while out of the den. A more relaxed mother bear means longer opportunities to get data on the development of this endangered species during the exams.
The acclimation process has involved the keepers securing Bai Yun in her sun room while she is eating. They then sit quietly at the mouth of the den and speak softly to the cub. They reach out a gloved hand and gently stroke the youngster while talking to it. One of our keepers made a sweet discovery while doing this: if she placed her hand under the cub’s head, it would press itself down against her hand and wrist, effectively snuggling in to the warmth of her palm.
This discovery came in very handy yesterday at our second cub exam. Once our team had gathered, Bai Yun left her den for breakfast and the door to the bedroom and den was closed. When a keeper reached into the den to pick up the cub, we realized that the desensitization efforts were paying off–the cub did not vocalize. It was much more relaxed about being touched. Once lifted from the den floor, and again while held at the exam table, the cub snuggled its head into the palm of the keeper.
The cub obviously felt much more secure this week. Our little panda vocalized very infrequently during the exam and with much less intensity. This meant that Bai Yun continued to eat peacefully in the sun room, uninterested in what was going on behind the closed door. Because of this, we were able to give the cub a more thorough exam this week, and the youngster was out of the den for about 9.5 minutes.
I know our panda fans are very interested in the cute and fuzzy aspects of our littlest panda, but for me the big story this week is how well the keepers succeeded in improving the cub exam experience for our cub and mother. I am very proud to say that the well-being of our animals is something we take very seriously, even when our animal is a tiny little creature whose ears and eyes aren’t yet open.
See more images in our Panda Photo Gallery.
Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.