Panda Exam: Behind the Scenes

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Diagnosis: Acute Cuteness!

Diagnosis: Acute Cuteness!

I was privileged to attend panda cub Xiao Liwu’s exam Wednesday morning, January 30, my first ever, and I’m sure I will always remember my close encounter with Bai Yun’s Little Gift. I’d love to share this experience with all of you!

The exam was scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. I arrived early (naturally!) and greeted our photographer, Ken, videographer, Maria, and members of the Panda Team. A large piece of thin carpet had been laid down in the keeper work area where the panda cub exams are held, and a Kong toy, small plastic ball, leafy bamboo, a small log, and an apple slice were all in place, just as I’ve seen in the exam videos. I looked directly into the eyes of Matt Kinney, the attending veterinarian, and asked him to please make sure the six-month-old cub was fine after the many falls and tumbles he has taken. Panda fans want to know! See video below to  hear Matt’s findings.

At this time, Bai Yun was already out in the north exhibit, eating her bamboo breakfast, but the cub had been held back in the off-exhibit bedroom area for the exam. At 8:30, panda keeper Beth opened the door to the bedroom, scooped up the cutie, and placed him on the scale in the bedroom to get his weight. She called out his weight: 19.4 pounds (8.8 kilograms), and then carried him into the exam room. I gasped in delight when I saw him in her arms: Xiao Liwu in the flesh/fur/cuteness! My very first thought was how roly-poly he looked. My eyes got wet, but I tried to remain calm.

Our nutritionist, Jennifer, had been delayed, but Dr. Matt got right to work with the physical exam, as the team didn’t know how long Mr. Wu would be cooperative. The cub’s eyes, mouth, heart, body condition, and more were all checked, but I found myself watching (envying!) keeper Beth scratch and scritch the active cub to keep him in one place and keep those curious claws and teeth away from our doctor. Xiao Liwu seemed to love every minute of attention! He enjoyed the apple and grabbed onto the ball, but ignored that bamboo stuff and log. Yet the cub was silent throughout—didn’t make one peep the entire time!

I asked Ken to take some photos of Xiao Liwu’s paws, as so many fans have wondered if those paws are webbed like father Gao Gao’s. I wanted proof that they are not! Ken obliged, and I saw just a barely visible patch of gray fur on each hind leg. I tried to look for his black tail tip, but the cub kept his tail curled up. I was amazed at how close Ken and Maria were able to get with their cameras without bothering the special boy one bit!

And then, Jennifer arrived and handed me a clipboard: I was to jot down the measurements she took! That’s right: I would be doing something useful! I got to get down at cub level next to (not on) the carpet so I could hear Jennifer call out the different numbers (13 different measurements in all!). By then, Xiao Liwu was eager to explore more of the carpet. He came right over to me and TOUCHED THE CLIPBOARD WITH HIS NOSE! Now, I have a confession. Many of you were hoping I would have the chance to touch the cub and whisper sweet nothings in his ear, and I certainly could have at this point, but I did not. Why? It was such an honor to be there, to be this close, and I wanted to respect him as he was. It’s hard to explain! He was so near that I could SEE what he would feel like: a very coarse-haired chubby panda cub. It doesn’t get much better than that. Just the fact that he came over to me (and my clipboard) was all I needed to feel fulfilled (why are my eyes getting wet as I write this?). I hope you all understand.

Xiao Liwu was so unfazed by the whole exam thing, but we’ve promised guests that our little panda star can be seen on exhibit daily at 9 a.m. With a sigh, I watched as he willingly followed Beth back into the bedroom. From there, he continued ambling through the tunnel system and right on out to the exhibit, where I could see Bai Yun STILL munching on her bamboo but facing that door, as if watching for her cub’s arrival. I hear he feel asleep soon after!

I stayed behind to ask the Panda Team some of the many questions panda fans sent in, and I will share the answers in a future post. Right now, I’m still on a panda cub high!

Debbie Andreen is an editor and blog moderator for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: Last Exam?

Click to enlarge chart

Click to enlarge chart