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Birthday Celebration at San Diego Zoo: Giant Panda Xiao Liwu Turns Two!

Xiao Liwu's 2nd birthdayXiao Liwu (pronounced sshyaoww lee woo), a male giant panda at the San Diego Zoo, turned two years old today and received a birthday party, complete with cake and presents. The young panda, whose name means little gift, came out of his den this morning to find a festive, four-foot-tall ice cake, topped with a big ice “2″ and filled with some of his favorite treats: apple, carrot and yam slices.

The birthday bear, called Mr. Wu by his keepers and panda fans, went directly to the two-tiered cake and began eating the slices of fruits and vegetables layering the top tier of the icy treat. When he ate all the slices, he patiently waited for the ice to melt so he could eat the fruit frozen into the tiers. He later climbed on top of the cake and chewed on the bamboo stalks frozen inside the decorative elements before venturing off to check out his gifts, boxes filled with hay, alfalfa and pine shavings and scented with cinnamon.

Xiao Liwu’s cake, weighing 100 pounds, was made by the Zoo’s nutritional services team and took weeks to complete. It was made of water colored with food coloring and frozen into layers, with bamboo stalks used to support the tiers. The ice cake was decorated with sliced fruits and vegetables, bamboo, colored pieces of ice cut into star shapes and pureed yam frosting applied with traditional frosting tubes and tips. The cake and gifts are a form of enrichment, which is important to the panda, as it keeps him stimulated and active, allowing him to show natural behaviors.

Keepers describe Mr. Wu as an extremely smart and precocious cub. He enjoys playing in a long, plastic tray filled with ice cubes, but once the cubes melt, he comes out. He also enjoys rolling in different scents and his favorites are ginseng root, wintergreen and cinnamon. He is very laid back and relaxed and loves his bamboo, eating 15 to 20 pounds of it a day. He weighs 88 pounds and when full grown can weigh as much as 250 pounds. Visitors can see Mr. Wu at Panda Trek at the San Diego Zoo or watch him on the Zoo’s Panda cam at zoo.sandiegozoo.org/cams/panda-cam.

The San Diego Zoo is home to three giant pandas: Xiao Liwu, his mother, Bai Yun and father, Gao Gao. Giant pandas are on loan to the San Diego Zoo from the People’s Republic of China for conservation studies of this endangered species. To help San Diego Zoo Global lead the fight against extinction and to celebrate Xiao Liwu’s birthday, please consider becoming a Hero for Wildlife by making a monthly donation to San Diego Zoo Global’s Wildlife Conservancy at www.endextinction.org.

Photo taken on July 29, 2014, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291

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Panda Xiao Liwu is Two

Xiao Liwu's birthday cake was a thing of beauty!

Xiao Liwu’s birthday cake had a beach theme, complete with tiki torches!

Our birthday boy picked an especially warm day for his party, and who knows how long his ice cake will last, but it was a thing of beauty! The two-year-old panda’s party had a beach theme, so his exhibit was decorated with cardboard beach balls, jellyfish, and seahorses dangling here and there, cardboard gift boxes, and a pile of wood shavings to represent beach sand.

The birthday cake was topped with a large blue “2,” which didn’t stay upright for long, and an orange “tiki torch” on each side. Mr. Wu seemed delighted with his surprise, climbing up on it to get every last bit of apple. When, most likely, his tongue and bottom got too cold, he retired to the log bridge to nap in the warm sun.

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Our cake team spent several weeks preparing this special treat for Xiao Liwu. It was about 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall, weighed over 100 pounds (45 kilograms), and had layers supported by bamboo poles. It was so colorful, too! Bright blues and oranges. Knowing that apples are “Mr. Wu’s” favorite snack, the team filled the cake with apple slices frozen in the ice blocks. Slices of carrots, yams, bamboo, and more apples were arranged in a depression on the top of the cake, which was drizzled with a yam paste “frosting.”

If he gets too warm today, he’ll still have that beautiful ice cake to sit on! Video of Xiao Liwu enjoying his morning when it becomes available, so be sure to check back. (Update: video has been added. Enjoy!)

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Keeper Jennifer Becerra hangs a cardboard beach ball as part of the decorations.

Xiao Liwu 2nd birthday cake

It took three strong cake team members to bring in the 100-pound cake.

The cake awaits the Birthday Panda.

The cake awaits the Birthday Panda.

Ooh, this cake feels good!

Ooh, this cake feels good!

Happy birthday, Xiao Liwu, our Little Gift!

San Diego Zoo Global is working with a number of international partners worldwide to save species like the giant panda. You can become one of our valued partners in conservation by supporting us today!

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Xiao Liwu and Water

Come to Mr. Wu, bamboo!

Come to Mr. Wu, bamboo!

What is it about water and Mr. Wu? San Diego Zoo Keeper Jennifer Becerra reports that our precocious panda boy enjoys playing with tubs of ice cubs—and has even fallen asleep atop the ice in the tub. But once that ice has melted, out he comes! To encourage foraging behavior, keepers gave him the opportunity to bob for apples—but once he got his paw wet, the game was over.

Other attempts to get Xiao Liwu, who is almost two (sounds like a line from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, doesn’t it?), to forage for his food have failed. Wu does NOT like to work for his food. As Jennifer admitted, he is definitely Gao Gao’s son in that regard!

Thankfully, other forms of enrichment have been appreciated by the mini Gao Gao. You may have observed him resting on a “pillow,” a burlap coffee-bean bag filled with hay. And he has a new favorite scent: gingseng root. His blood pressure/blood draw training is progressing nicely, and he now rolls onto his side when asked—another training milestone.

Don’t tell Wu yet, but a birthday ice cake has been ordered for his big day on July 29. He should enjoy it, as long as it doesn’t melt!

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global.

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Xiao Liwu’s First 2 Years

Here he comes. Watch out, snow!

Here he comes. Watch out, snow!

We’ve put together a fun video showing some of panda Xiao Liwu’s milestones (see below). The video was made for our San Diego Zoo Kids channel, a television broadcast channel featuring programming about unique and endangered animals species designed to entertain and educate guests about wildlife around the world. It is shown in select children’s hospitals on their in-room televisions. The channel features video from our famous Panda Cam as well as other live, online cameras, fun and educational pieces about a variety of animals, and up-close video encounters of popular animals with our national spokesperson, Rick Schwartz.

The San Diego Zoo Kids channel is funded by a generous gift by businessman and philanthropist Denny Sanford. We thought “Mr. Wu’s” many fans would like to see this video, too. Enjoy!


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Xiao Liwu: Star Student!

Xiao Liwu now eats more bamboo than his mother does!

Xiao Liwu now eats more bamboo than his mother does!

Keeper Jen Becerra passed along some updates on the San Diego Zoo’s panda family, starting with Xiao Liwu, who will be two years old next month (how time flies!). Jen claims “Mr. Wu” has been the easiest of Bai Yun’s six cubs to train, and she marvels how each of her cubs has been progressively smarter, with Mr. Wu at the head of the class! Yesterday he began training for blood draws and blood pressure checks, done with the help of a metal sleeve. The panda is asked to put his or her arm in the sleeve and grab the bar at the end (see post Still Ga Ga for Gao Gao.) An apple slice is placed near the end of the sleeve for the panda to grab for, and after several weeks of this, the bear learns to grab the bar at the end of that sleeve to receive the reward. Well, Xiao Liwu stuck his arm in the sleeve on his first try AND grabbed the bar on the end, as if he’d been doing it all his life! Jen kept using the word amazing to describe how the first day of this training went. Just a few months ago, keepers were concerned that Wu would be challenging to train because he prefers bamboo to other food items used for rewards. But it seems that for Mr. Wu, interaction with his keepers is reward enough!

Xiao Liwu has broadened his food menu but is still rather particular about its presentation. Still a huge fan of bamboo and apples, he has added to his repertoire low-starch, high-fiber biscuits (only if they are soaked in water first), and sweet potatoes and carrots (but only if they are cut into sticks). And speaking of bamboo, he now eats MORE of it than his mother, Bai Yun, does. Yes, you read that right! Wu polishes off 11 to 13 pounds (5 to 6 kilograms) of bamboo each day, whereas Bai Yun eats 8 to 11 pounds (4 to 5 kilograms). Gao Gao is the biggest eater of the three, downing 15 to 17 pounds (7 to 8 kilograms) daily. Xiao Liwu’s current weight is 84 pounds (38 kilograms).

Our growing boy seems quite comfortable in the main viewing exhibit and doesn’t call to his mother or look for her in any way. The feeling is mutual, as these days Bai Yun’s attitude is “It’s all about me!” When not eating his bamboo, Xiao Liwu spends time in buckets of ice or in front of the mister fan but doesn’t play much with his enrichment toys. Jen says he’s like “an adult bear in a small body.” Wu is a fan of various enrichment scents, with wintergreen, peppermint, and cinnamon his top three fragrances.

Gao Gao continues his recovery from his surgery and is spending more time in the north yard, off exhibit to guests but where he may be seen on Panda Cam. He still prefers hanging out in his bedroom suite, where keepers are at his beck and call. Jen admits that Gao Gao has come up with a special vocalization used just for them—a sweet, light bleat that seems to mean “Come here, please.” When the keeper comes, there is Papa Gao, pressed up to the mesh for a back scratch. Who could resist that request?

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global.

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“Go potty,” Xiao Liwu

What a clever panda boy we have!

What a clever panda boy we have!

Many of you have wondered how we trained the San Diego Zoo’s panda youngster, Xiao Liwu, to provide a urine sample upon request. Teaching a bear to urinate on command takes a lot of patience and observation of the bear and his or her habits. We used a method called capturing a behavior.

We noticed that when “Mr. Wu” shifts off exhibit and goes into the tunnel, which has a concrete floor, he would, fairly regularly, go to the bathroom before he went into his bedroom. Urine is a very important tool for information about any animal to determine health or hormone levels. So, we started keeping a water syringe and extra apples with us when we started shifting him in at night. When we “caught” him going potty, we would say “go potty” and show him the syringe. When he was done, we would offer him his verbal cue, “Good,” and an apple reward.

After about two weeks of this, he started to go potty when we asked him to. We then use the syringe to collect his urine sample off the concrete floor, which is cleaned every day and night. No cup or pan needed!

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Yun Zi Travels to China, Part 2.

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Entertaining Panda Cub Xiao Liwu

Xiao Liwu relaxes in his off-exhibit bedroom next to his rocking "horse." See, he likes apples!

Xiao Liwu relaxes in his off-exhibit bedroom next to his rocking “horse.” See, he likes apples!

What has our panda cub been up to, now that he’s been on his own for a few weeks? Keeper Jennifer Becerra filled me in on all things “Wu,” and I’m eager to share what I learned with Xiao Liwu’s many fans!

Jennifer says Xiao Liwu, now 20 months old, is doing quite well. He is not as playful as his older siblings have been and instead has become a bamboo-eating machine. Now weighing 70.5 pounds (32 kilograms), “Mr. Wu” eats about 22 pounds (10 kilograms) of bamboo each day—a lot for a little bear! Shunning most non-bamboo food items, he is developing a taste for Fuji apple slices and applesauce. Lately, keepers have been blending steamed carrots, yams, applesauce, and banana-flavored biscuits into a mush for him. They serve the concoction in a metal pan, which you may have seen in his enclosure.

Lest you think Wu is all about food, don’t worry. He does enjoy playing in a long, plastic tray filled with ice cubes. He climbs all over a recycled plastic “rocking horse,” which is really in the shape of a whale, that is in his off-exhibit bedroom area. And you’ll be proud to know he is doing well with his training. He already urinates on command when he hears the words “go potty”! Being able to collect this vital fluid for periodic testing is part of our animal care protocol. Mr. Wu knows how to “target” or touch his nose to a target stick, and he knows to put his paws up, paws down, and to sit when asked to do so. He also enjoys his new bedding material, called excelsior hay, that is on top of the cave structure. This hay product was on his Wish List—thank you, donors!

Ice cubes feel good on a warm day!

This ice feels good on a warm day!

And then there are scents! Our pandas love to roll and anoint themselves with different odors. Their keepers found a fragrance company that provides a huge variety of choices. They all like the smell of cinnamon, but I found it interesting that each panda also has his or her favorites. For Mr. Wu, it’s wintergreen. Bai Yun enjoys those in the mint family: wintergreen, peppermint, and spearmint. Yun Zi, who is now living in China, loved honeysuckle and earthworm! And Gao Gao? He tends to lean toward more musky scents, but his all-time favorite is rubbing alcohol!

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Delightful Tasmanian Devils.

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Xiao Liwu: Weaning Wrap-up

Xiao LiwuLate last week, we separated Xiao Liwu from his mother for the last time. He remained in the main viewing exhibits for a few days while Bai Yun was shifted out of the area so that they were not across a door from one another. We have found in the past that in the first few days post-weaning, the cub can be quite vocal, calling for mother as it wanders about. This can arouse a response from Bai Yun; therefore, we find it best to put some distance between them to allow our adult female to remain relaxed.

As anticipated, our littlest bear has shown some tendency toward wandering and vocalizing in the last few days. This is normal. As mentioned in a previous post, the cub is always the one most unhappy about the separation and would prefer to prolong his or her relationship with momma bear. The lure of a constant companion, playmate, and milk source is strong! Her absence from the cub’s life is something the youngster clearly responds to. However, past cubs seem to move on from their discontent within about a week or so, and we expect Xiao Liwu will follow suit.

For her part, Bai Yun does not seem to reciprocate the sentiment that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Keepers have reported that she is doing very well post-separation. The only restlessness observed with her are those typical of food anticipation, the same bouts observed when the cub was with her daily. Otherwise, Bai Yun is very focused on priority number one: her bamboo and other food. For our matriarch, it’s business as usual. Her job of cub rearing now done, she appears thoroughly content.

Xiao Liwu has been shifted off exhibit to the upper bedroom area where he is closer to his keepers. This is beneficial to the little bear, as the keepers are poised to fill some of the social void left by his mother’s absence. Already, they have had nice sessions with him during which they have been able to hand-feed him apple slices and offer him back scratches. The apple slices are a small victory because, as you may recall, he has been unwilling to eat anything but bamboo to this point. Having a food source over which the keepers can bond with the youngster will enable them to build a stronger relationship. These bonding sessions become an important foundation for future training and husbandry that requires cooperation and mutual trust between keepers and animal.

While Xiao Liwu will be off exhibit for some time to facilitate his keeper-bonding experience, there is a silver lining for some of our panda fans. Patriarch Gao Gao has been shifted back to the main viewing area, where he will remain for the next few months. When you observe the bears, you may notice that both Gao Gao and Bai Yun have small shaved patches now, as both underwent routine veterinary check-ups at the end of last week. With that out of the way, and weaning complete, our panda facility will now settle into a new routine that will be the status quo for the near term.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Weaning Xiao Liwu: Leafy Greens.

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Weaning Xiao Liwu: Leafy Greens

Xiao Liwu is surrounded by leafy greens.

Xiao Liwu is surrounded by leafy greens.

After many days of short separations, giant pandas Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu were doing well. Both bears had a few hours each morning to be on their own, and both spent that time eating heartily. Reunions between them at the midday feed were non-events. Although occasional nursing bouts were observed, it did not appear that the frequency of nursing had been accelerated. Further, the duration of observed nursing bouts was very short, lasting only about two minutes. This suggested that either mother Bai Yun’s milk supply had begun to dwindle or that the nursing was more about comfort-seeking than calorie-seeking on the part of our youngster, Xiao Liwu.

Since no other comfort-seeking behaviors had been observed, we opted to move forward with our weaning protocol. Last week, we lengthened the time the two bears are separated. The two are no longer reunited at midday and instead are separate still as they are served lunch. Access to each other is now delayed until the end of the workday, when the last keeper is ready to head home.

Did you notice? Probably not, since the bears showed no overt response to this change. We have only one report of “Wu” knocking on the door that separated mother from son, and it was a brief event. They are both taking this change very much in stride. In fact, by all accounts, Wu seems to be handling this separation better than any of his siblings. He is a very relaxed bear.

I can’t say why it is that he seems so much better able to adapt to the weaning process than his siblings. Perhaps it is because of his penchant for bamboo. He still refuses to eat anything but his leafy greens, despite our keepers’ gallant attempts to offer him something—anything—that he might like as an alternate treat. We know that adult pandas have to spend a lot of time feeding on bamboo to meet their caloric needs. Perhaps Wu is not so concerned about weaning because he, too, is very focused on bamboo feeding. To get his calories, he isn’t relying on carrots and apples and Gao Gao bread and honey-soaked softened biscuits (keepers have been really trying to entice him!), so he has to take in as much bamboo as he can get his paws on, and there is little time to worry about his mother.

In fact, these weaning separations may be helping him to some degree. Our little panda actually gained some weight in the first nine days of our separation protocol. Perhaps having the bamboo all to himself is beneficial to him. It will take some time, and several more weigh-ins, to see if his weigh gain trajectory alters as a result of weaning separations.

In a short time, if both do well, we will be looking to complete the weaning process for Xiao Liwu. Though some of the details have yet to be worked out, be sure that our keeper staff stands ready to provide Wu with the added social support all of our past cubs have needed once he is independent of his mother. All of our previous cubs have incurred a short period of pining for their mother after weaning was complete (generally not reciprocated by Bai Yun, they’d be sad to learn), but perhaps our bamboo boy will pine the least of all. He’s very busy, after all, getting in those leafy greens.

Watch our pandas daily on Panda Cam.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Weaning Xiao Liwu: Conflict over Calories.

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Weaning Xiao Liwu: Conflict over Calories

Xiao Liwu nibbles on a bamboo stalk.

Xiao Liwu nibbles on a bamboo stalk.

Over the last week or so, we have allowed our giant panda mother-cub pair access to more space to see what kind of behavioral pattern develops. We’ve watched Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu closely during this time, both with formalized behavioral observations and informal sessions by keepers and staff. What we have seen is rather typical for this stage in their lives together. Bai Yun is food-focused, moving around both exhibits in search of the choicest bamboo and other snacks. Xiao Liwu is also becoming increasingly food-focused, though interested only in bamboo. When he is finished eating, he follows his mother around, like a little shadow.

Interestingly, this cub is not ingesting much kibble or produce. This makes him rather unique among his siblings in that they were motivated to feed on these calorie-dense items. Xiao Liwu, on the other hand, is limiting all of his non-milk calories to bamboo, which makes it that much more important that he gets plenty of his leafy greens. Since he is nursing very infrequently, probably less than once each day, his bamboo intake is meeting most of his energetic needs.

This is where a conflict arises. Bai Yun is quite determined to meet her caloric needs as well, and though she ingests a lot of produce and kibble, she’s also keen to exploit the bamboo resources we provide. Right now, she has a little competition for the choicest bits, and we have witnessed several bouts of wrestling over bamboo between mother and cub as a result. She’ll even steal the cub’s bamboo and hold him at bay, squealing, while she munches on the remnants of what Wu was working on. Though we provide the two bears with plenty of food, sometimes Wu loses out to his mother with respect to the bamboo he wants. Although he can usually walk away and find something else to snack on, we wonder to what degree his ability to meet his caloric needs is inhibited by his mother.

When not feeding, Xiao Liwu moves about the exhibits in fairly close proximity to his mother. Bai Yun, on the other hand, has not been observed following her son. This is a pattern we have observed with past panda cubs. If the little ones had their way, weaning separations would be delayed by months, or even years! Who wants to give up on the milk bar and the built-in playmate? But Bai Yun is less interested in fulfilling these roles as time goes by. Rejection of nursing bouts is something we have seen off and on for some time. And play bouts are not always welcome. For example, we recently witnessed a bout in which Wu bounded onto his mother with a sudden leap, resulting in Bai Yun biting down hard enough on him to elicit a loud yelp. This brought the play bout to a skidding halt, which may have been the result Bai Yun was going for. As this kind of interaction becomes more common, it reinforces for us the importance of considering momma bear in the weaning equation.

The indicators suggest to us that we should move ahead with our weaning protocol. For this reason, you will notice that Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu will now have periods of separation, each one housed in one of the main exhibits for a few hours each day. The bears will be separated in the morning and given their own foods to chow down on. The cub will not have to worry about his mother stealing his breakfast, and Bai Yun won’t have to worry about play bouts interrupting her meal. We’ll bring them back together about lunchtime and repeat the process the following day. We will, as usual, be watching closely to see how the bears adapt. Stay tuned to this channel for further updates as the process unfolds.

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