I have been extremely fortunate to know Yun Zi since the day he was born four and a half years ago. I fell in love with him the first time I saw those blue and mischievous eyes. He has taught me so much about taking care of pandas, patience, and training. But he would tell you he has me trained! So when my supervisor asked if I wanted to accompany him to China, there was only one thing for me to say, and that was “Yes!”
At that moment I felt extremely privileged to be able to care for Yun Zi on this adventure to his new home in Wolong, China. A soon as I knew this information, I had a checklist of everything we needed to do to prepare Yun Zi for his trip. I knew Dr. Beth Bicknese, our veterinarian, would be joining us on the trip so I wouldn’t be alone.
The first thing and easiest part was picking out a travel crate for Yun Zi. We chose the same crate that his sister, Su Lin, used for her trip to China. Our lead keeper delivered the crate near Yun Zi’s bedrooms so he was able to see it. We then started feeding Yun Zi some of his bamboo and treats in his crate with the door open. Yun Zi is very adaptable and would sit and eat in his crate calmly; soon after, we were able to close the crate door while he was in there. At this point, we needed to increase the time he spent in his crate, and that meant he had to move off exhibit, away from public view.
Daily, Yun Zi started eating his lunch in his travel crate with his keepers near by to keep an eye on him. These sessions would last one to two hours, and we varied the time he was in the crate. Then came the scary part: we drove a forklift toward his crate, and Yun Zi proved that it wasn’t a scary thing at all! He sat calmly, eating his bamboo as our supervisor lifted him in his crate. He was excelling at all his preparations, including having someone standing on top of his crate, loud noises, and seeing groups of strangers around him (thanks to help from our panda narrators and educators).
The last major thing he had to do was his final physical exam with Dr. Beth and the other veterinarians. Yun Zi passed his exam with flying colors and was deemed healthy for his long journey. He even excelled at giving a voluntary blood sample two days after his exam!
Yun Zi made his part look easy. As the keeper going with him, I was assigned, with my supervisor’s help, to prepare all his luggage and things he would need along the journey. I picked out two of his favorite toys to take with him: a plastic donut and his PVC puzzle feeder (sadly, his swing was too big to come with us). We packed gloves, garbage bags, towels, a rake, shredded paper, squirt bottles, honey packets, a jug of water, biscuits, bamboo bread, and his favorite bamboo.
Suzanne Hall, one of our panda researchers, helped me make a training video of all the behaviors that Yun Zi knows. I know everyone is curious about Yun Zi not knowing the Mandarin language, but we prepare our pandas for this. We train them with verbal cues in English and hand cues/gestures. The video shows both cues, so when his new keeper performs the hand cue for “sit,” Yun Zi will know that he is supposed to sit. This will help him eventually learn the language and his new keepers.
Most of his meals will be the same. We have the ingredients to prepare Wolong panda bread, and Yun Zi really enjoys it. The bread is to replace the cinnamon-flavored high-fiber biscuits we offer our pandas. He will still get his regular diet of bamboo plus apples and carrots.
When the day came to leave (January 9) it was like any other day for Yun Zi: he walked into his crate to have lunch. When he was comfortable and eating his bamboo, the forklift picked up Yun Zi in his crate, and we loaded him in his transport van. Dr. Beth, Yun Zi, and I had our luggage, and we were ready to go to the Los Angeles airport.
Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Birthday Plans for Yun Zi.