Just for our blog readers, the following is an advance look at an article that will be published in the upcoming June digital issue of ZOONOOZ magazine. To see this and all our digital issues, download the ZOONOOZ app for iPad or the web reader version for your desktop, FREE!
Keeping elderly animals comfortable and healthy can entail rearranging animal groupings to avoid individuals in their golden years getting inadvertently roughed up by younger animals, providing medication for aching joints and other age-related ailments, and monitoring potential health issues with noninvasive exams. The latter requires the animal’s cooperation and can take time to train and condition the animal to go along with it. For instance, tracking the blood pressure of Gao Gao, our 24-year-old male giant panda, requires collaboration between keepers, veterinary staff, and panda. The calm competency of the staff involved and the sweet trust of the black-and-white bear are impressive!
Equipped with apples cut into bite-sized pieces, a small bucket of biscuit balls and bamboo bread, and a blood-pressure monitor attached to an extension cord, keepers and veterinary technicians got into position while I watched the procedure. Gao Gao ambled past, dapper and darling all at once, heading into the squeeze cage and eager to get down to business with a series of enthusiastic bleats and neighs (excited giant panda vocalizations). A steel sleeve, with a cutout area on the top that aligns with the bear’s forearm, was secured to the sturdy cage. Knowing that this noninvasive medical procedure entails his favorite foods, Gao Gao plunged his arm into the sleeve, grasping the metal bar at the end. “We use this sleeve to collect blood samples as well,” explained Brian Opitz, registered veterinary technician (RVT) at the Zoo, “so he knows to hold onto the bar inside the sleeve. To get his blood pressure, we just wait a few minutes for him to let go of the bar and let us place the cuff around his forearm.” All the while, Gao Gao is being hand-fed his favorite snacks, peering at us from behind those big, black eye spots.Gao Gao is a senior bear (in the wild, pandas can live up to about 20 years and up to 30 years in managed care), and keepers and vets go to great lengths to ensure he remains healthy. “Keepers put in a lot of time in training for these procedures so we can stay on top of possible medical issues without having to use anesthesia to collect bio-samples,” said Jill Kuntz, RVT at the Zoo. Over time, the grinding action of chewing thick bamboo stalks can wear down a panda’s teeth, as is the case with Gao Gao. Hence, he is given tasty little homemade biscuit balls made of dried bamboo, which he devoured with great gusto throughout the procedure.
Keepers and vets have been gathering baseline data—no one really knows what a normal blood pressure range is for a giant panda—on Gao Gao since May 2013. A few other zoos are also participating in this blood-pressure project. Every 7 to 14 days, staff gathers to collect 3 blood-pressure readings from Gao Gao, which he is agreeable to doing on either arm. “We also trained Yun Zi [Gao Gao’s son] to do this before he left for China,” said keeper Liz Simmons, “but he grabbed the blood- pressure cuff and tore it up.” Undaunted, they continued the training process, rewarding the younger bear for placing his arm in the steel sleeve while keepers peeled the Velcro apart to get him accustomed to the sound of the blood-pressure cuff. Soon, he was going along with the procedure, a skill that will surely come in handy in his homeland.Accepting the blood-pressure cuff is one of many husbandry behaviors the pandas are patiently trained to do through positive reinforcement. They also present a paw, belly, or rump to keepers, which is helpful in monitoring the animals’ health. Bai Yun, our prolific female panda, will even allow ultrasound procedures so veterinarians can monitor her pregnancies. It’s clear that the keepers are deeply committed to their charges. “We do this training for their health,” said Karen Scott, senior keeper. “That’s what we’re here for. We don’t force them.”
As the bottom of the treat bucket becomes visible, and his blood-pressure readings have been duly noted, Gao Gao calmly looks us all over. A keeper puts a few drops of rubbing alcohol on the floor, and the bear happily rolls around on it. “Usually animals balk at the scent of rubbing alcohol, but Gao Gao loves it—it’s like catnip to him,” explained Brian. It’s the ultimate treat! Gao Gao continued to rub and roll in the acrid odor, then proceeded to scent mark with his own “cologne.” With the procedure completed, he was free to mosey back out on exhibit. “We are lucky to have such an easygoing, tractable panda who allows us to do these exciting and important health procedures as he ages,” said Liz. And we are all fortunate to share the noble journey of Gao Gao’s life, quirks and all.
Watch our pandas daily on Panda Cam!
Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, With a “Headstart,” Local Turtles Make a Comeback. /