Big Changes for Little Bears

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Xiao Liwu is working on his motor skills.

In recent weeks, a lot has been happening with our bear population at the San Diego Zoo. In particular, some of our smallest bears have been undergoing significant transitions to their daily routine.

Our panda cub is preparing for his debut on exhibit. For him, this is a natural progression as his skill set advances, and he becomes more agile. A month or so ago, Xiao LiWu was a fairly immobile little bear, content to sleep for hours inside the den while his mother stretched her legs in other areas of the facility. Now, his ability to crawl has transformed into good walking skills, and he is ambling around regularly.

Recently, the cub walked, on his own, a good distance toward the north exhibit where he will first meet his admiring public. He got nearly to the door of that exhibit when he encountered a barrier: a slider door in the open position jutted into his travel path about a foot. He investigated the slider and pressed up against it, spending several minutes working the problem this obstacle presented. Ultimately, he couldn’t quite figure out how to go around, as his mother had done on her pass through the tunnel. Deterred, he turned around and headed back to the den for a nap. Before he is regularly on exhibit, he will have figured out how to overcome little adversities like this one.

Our other small bears, the sun bears, have also undergone some transitions in the last few weeks. After unsuccessful pairing attempts for Marcella and Francis earlier this year, we moved Francis to an off-exhibit area where he could receive lots of human attention and training opportunities. The quiet time away from public viewing seemed to serve him well, and he slowly settled into a nice routine. In the fall, we began to acclimate him to a new exhibit near the foot of bear canyon, an area some of our other bears had done very well in. With a slow-moving protocol, we were finally able to get Francis comfortable being on exhibit.

In December, we moved Marcella out of the exhibit on Sun Bear Trail and placed her adjacent to Francis in an exhibit on Center Street. We want her close by the male should she cycle again, but we didn’t want to move Francis away from a place he seems comfortable in. Thankfully, Marcella has been quite adaptable with moves like this, and she is settling in fine. Shortly after her move up the hill, keepers noted that Francis seemed more willing to accept Marcella in his new space. He has even started bringing her gifts, leaving his enrichment objects at the gate that separates him from his potential mate. In time, we hope that this builds into an acceptance of Marcella that promotes successful breeding between our sun bears. It is important for them to try again, as no sun bear cubs have survived more than a few days in the US since the birth of Marcella’s twin cubs nearly five years ago.

As the year winds down, we expect these recent changes will help our bears settle well into the next phases of their lives. We are hopeful that the New Year will be good to our animals, as Xiao Liwu grows into a robust little panda, and our sun bears will (fingers crossed) succeed in breeding. I would also like to extend my warm wishes to you for a happy holiday season and a peaceful transition to a new year.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Perfectly Panda.