Helping Panda Keepers

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Why work when you can play?

Why work when you can play?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been fortunate enough to work as an exhibit attendant at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Center. I’ve been learning a lot about keeper work and what it entails. What I’ve learned is that it’s a ton of fun and a TON of work!

Most panda keepers start their day off around 6 a.m. with getting the supplemental diets ready for the bears and making the bamboo bread loaf for Gao Gao. Then they are ready to clean up last night’s leftovers and panda poop and give the bears their breakfast. Once the exhibits and bedrooms are clean, it’s off to the takins we go, cleaning and placing hay, pellets, and browse throughout these goat-antelopes’ exhibit.

When work at the Sichuan takin exhibit is done, more than likely it’s lunchtime, but soon afterward it’s time for the bears’ mid-day feeding. Keepers prep bamboo diets for the pandas’ last feeding of the day as well as tomorrow’s breakfasts and lunches. Next, they cut and weigh the apples, carrots, yams, and low-starch, high-fiber biscuits for the next day so the food is ready when the early morning keeper arrives. Finally, it’s time to enter information into the computer, such as how much the bears ate or what enrichment they were given that day. Pretty soon you realize it’s already time to clock out. Time flies when you’re having fun!

Even though I’ve had a bit of keeper work experience in the past, I’ve seen some things for the first time. I loved watching Gao Gao getting his blood pressure taken. He’s such an intelligent bear and is always ready to participate in any training session. He’s so eager to put his front limb through the metal chute to get an apple slice. Gao Gao is also very patient and definitely doesn’t mind the attention from the keepers. He LOVES his back scratches!

I also found it interesting to watch the pandas and takins getting their weights taken. The keepers have to plan ahead, since there’s always a lot to do in an eight-hour shift. I’ve learned that with this process, not only are the animals patient, but the keepers are as well, especially if one of the animals doesn’t feel like standing on the scale. If they don’t want to do it the first time, it’s okay. Keepers offer food as a form of encouragement if they decide to even stand on the scale for a slight second. Sometimes the animals don’t want to participate, and if not, keepers will just try again on another day to get that weight.

Watching the keepers do training sessions with Xiao Liwu has been one of my favorite experiences. Like his dad, Gao Gao, our youngster is eager to learn and interested in the honey water provided during his training. Sometimes he’s waiting at the gate to be let in for breakfast, but sometimes he’s fast asleep in the tree. Either way, I love to watch our keepers have a relationship with all of the bears. Of course they have their favorites, but you can see they have such a wonderful bond with each of them.

It has been such a treat learning more about keepers and their daily work. They are all such bright, intelligent, hard-working individuals. Each has their own spin on their daily tasks, whether it’s raking or sorting out enrichment and diets. They are such amazing people with a unique story on how they ended up keepers at the San Diego Zoo. Our Zoo has an incredible team of people who take care of our amazing animals.

Alyssa Medeiros is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Reflections on Xiao Liwu.