About Author: Anastasia Horning

Posts by Anastasia Horning


Good Weather, Good Food

Gao Gao has been in fine form lately, climbing trees and scent marking.

Gao Gao has been in fine form lately, climbing trees and generally giving keepers quite a show!

Lately, as I have been narrating down at the panda enclosure, I’m seeing the bears relax, sit back, and enjoy the food. As many of you know, we feed several different types of bamboo to our bears, and in recent days they have really been enjoying themselves! Bai Yun will often eat for a few hours at a time, and even Mr Xiao Liwu has been doing very well ripping the bamboo apart. And it seems while they’ve been relaxing, panda fans have been thinking; we have been getting a lot of questions about breeding the bears this year.

As of last week we have not seen any change in Bai Yun hormone reading or physical state. However, on a fairly regular basis we have observed her scent marking repeatedly around the enclosure, and even engaging in “water play”, a behavior we typically see when there is a hormone shift. As it is still early for her regular breeding season, we expect to continue watching her closely over the next couple of months and will monitor any progression towards an estrus. She is extremely healthy; one of the benefits about being captive born is a fantastic health package!

Gao Gao has been eating extremely well in his off-exhibit digs, and has been climbing up and down the trees giving our keepers quite a show in the back area. Engaging in handstand scent markings is always fun to see, and having him this active is a nice change of pace.

Now, please remember: even though he is quite vigorous right now and showing a lot of enthusiasm, we cannot put him in with Bai Yun unless we have positive evidence showing her in estrus. Our vet staff will ultimately have the final word on breeding the bears, and rest assured they always keep the animals’ best interests in mind and at heart.

Little Mr. Wu has also been showing lots of energy and spunk. On a daily basis we see him run around the enclosure, playing with enrichment that keepers have put out for him. Our guests have enjoyed watching him and his moves, and it has been great to show our guests what these bears are capable of. Over the next few months we may see more activity and more growth spurts!

Come see us soon!


Pandas in Winter

Cold temperatures? Extra bamboo? Works for Bai Yun!

Cold temperatures? Extra bamboo? Works for Bai Yun!

For the first time in a long time, our pandas are actually getting some truly winter weather. We’ve had some rain recently, and temperatures in the first week of the new year were really low for our region. And the geography of the Zoo means some parts of the grounds feel the chill more than others; Panda Canyon is usually 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the main entrance (where temperatures were in the mid-50s). Although the staff is feeling a bit chilly, the bears are loving this weather!

Giant pandas have a very thick, dense fur coat and like most bears they will try to gain as much weight as possible for winter, but they do not go into torpor (commonly called hibernation). Unlike their counterparts in China and zoos in colder parts of the world, our pandas don’t usually have much of a winter to deal with, but rest assured they are all doing just fine with this cold snap!

We always offer more food than what the bears will actually eat. This allows them to have variety in their diet but also giving them access to extra calories should they so desire. Our pandas do not weigh as much as other pandas that go through more severe winters, because they don’t need the extra insulating fat layer here in San Diego.

As someone who has worked both directly and indirectly (as a Panda Narrator) with the bears, I can honestly say that I love watching them in cold weather. You get to see them eat more and the younger pandas get a little more hop to their step. Yun Zi was one of my favorites to watch in winter. He was always an active fellow, but when it was cold or raining he’d roll in the mud and really tear his exhibit apart. Not always fun to clean up after, but a blast to observe!

No matter what the weather, Bai Yun tends to do her normal thing—eat till she’s tired, then take a nap. I often joke that she’s been here in San Diego for so long nothing much can surprise her anymore. Gao Gao will remain off exhibit in the North Exhibit, with regular access to his bedroom. The perk about having the back area to himself is that he can pretty much run his day however he wants. Inside or out he’s got full reign of the area in the back. Mr. Wu will be on exhibit, and I’m looking forward to watching him and see how he reacts to this cold snap. I know it’s not cold compared to where a lot of you are from, but for these bears, and us, it’s definitely a change!

Happy New Year and hope you are all well! Come see us soon in 2015!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator and keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Dealing with Noise in Panda Canyon.


Dealing with Noise in Panda Canyon

Bai Yun is a pro at dealing with activity around Panda Trek.

New noises catch Bai Yun’s attention, then it’s back to “business as usual.”

As many of you have seen on Panda Cam and in person, young Mr. Wu is off exhibit at times and only Bai Yun is present. Rest assured there is nothing wrong with him and he is perfectly fine. Our Zoo is coming up on its 100th birthday soon, so we are improving areas and updating where we can. With that comes a certain amount of noise that we really cannot get away from, so we closely monitor our animals for any signs of stress.

Xiao Liwu, being younger and not as experienced with new sounds, is more likely to react to the construction noise. Bai Yun is typically a pro at changes and has been managing extremely well. One of the benefits of having a panda narrator keeping an eye on the bears is that the narrator is familiar with each animal and can tell the Panda Team when there is a change in behavior. Our Web Team will always do its best to notify you when there may be a change in who is out for viewing, but the fact of the matter is that things can change quickly here, and we often need to make judgment calls quickly, too.

When the bears are off exhibit, they still have an outside yard they can go into if they so choose. Both of the north exhibits are close to bedrooms and, if needed, the keepers can give the pandas access to the bedrooms. The bedrooms offer a dry and cozy area for the pandas. Keepers often fill a giant tub full of hay or shavings for the bears to rest in, and there is a garden room for them to go into as well. Having a building between them and the extra noise often makes a huge difference in a panda’s comfort level and helps diminish any stress behavior.

Bai Yun is an expert at dealing with noise. When we were building the rest of Panda Trek, she was still able to be out in the main viewing area, right next to the noise. There were, of course, days where we noticed that she was a little annoyed with the activity level and so gave her access to her bedroom. There are several cameras in the area, and the panda narrator and guest ambassador all keep an eye—and ear—out for her to make sure that she is comfortable. In many situations, just giving her 10 to 15 minutes in her bedroom to get a little break will often set her right. In addition, we always do our best to make sure that she has extra bamboo that she is fond of and to try and keep her busy with enrichment.

Come see us soon, and please know that we are always thinking of how to make this an easy time for our animals!
Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator and keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Talkin’ about Takins.



Talkin’ about Takins

Closely related to sheep, takins are native to China.

As guests walk through Panda Trek at the San Diego Zoo, they are always surprised at our “cool goats” on the hillside. Indeed, the takins have been amazing to watch and work with over the years and have been a huge success for the zoological community here in the United States. Currently, we have a female herd of five individuals ranging in age from 14 to almost 2. They each have their own personalities, and society in the takin world can be a little dramatic!

Summer is our matriarch and the boss of the younger females. She is also the largest and very good with the younger females. As keepers, we do not go in with the takins, so we have to move the girls either into the barn or up onto the hillside yard. Our typical goal is to always move Summer first and the rest will follow her. Behind her is her sister, Eve, who is the bossy one and has the biggest attitude. She likes to throw her weight around and act like she’s in charge until her sister, Summer, tells her that’s enough. Summer and Eve have a younger sister named Duli, who is several years younger but who also likes the idea of being in charge of someone. These three females are the daughters of the last matriarch, Blondie, and challenge each other on a fairly regular basis about who is next in line.

The two youngsters in the herd are named Mei and Mu. Mei is the daughter of Summer and is in the awkward teenage phase where she is unsure of herself. She does her best to stay close to Mom for her protection, although Summer is starting to make Mei take care of herself and will even push her away to get her to an independent point. Mu is a bit of a stinker; she likes to pick fights with Duli and Mei but have her mother finish them. She is full of energy and has a very sweet disposition toward her keepers. One of her favorite things to do is go to the top of the hillside exhibit and wait for a clear path down the hill so she can run and jump the entire way down!

Female takins can live into their late teens, but being such a large animal, we do tend to see arthritis develop in their joints. Luckily, we have an amazing vet staff who are always ahead of the game, making sure we are as proactive as possible with possible medical issues.

Takins are found in the high mountains of the Sichuan Province of China and are used to climbing, jumping, and running on uneven terrain. As keepers, we have a blast watching them chase each other and play on the hillside. We also like to hang browse for them in high positions so that they stand on their hind legs and stretch to get those leaves.

These girls are wonderful ambassadors for their species, and as keepers and educators we are always so happy to hear guests get excited about these ladies. We think they are quite special and are always happy to share our stories and knowledge with our guests.

Click here to learn more about takins.

Anastasia Horning is a keeper and educator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Wish List: Enrichment for All.


Wish List: Enrichment for All

Carnivores like this Arctic wolf love to investigate new scents.

Carnivores like this Arctic wolf often roll in “smelly” stuff to hide their own scent.

At the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we are always trying to make sure that our animals are offered the best care possible. Through the years I have been fortunate to work in different areas and with several different animals. Though each animal is different and may need different types of care, one thing is always constant at the Zoo and Safari Park: enrichment.

When you come to the Zoo or Safari Park, you may see animals playing with something that looks like a toy, digging under a log, or even rolling in mulch. What may look like the animal just playing is actually a skill or behavior that the animals may naturally exhibit. For keepers, one of the fun parts of the job is getting to be creative with enrichment. Where can they hide the food? What can they use to cover a smell or scent mark? What can the animal maneuver and break apart?

Zoos and other managed-care facilities use enrichment to ensure that their animals stay active and engaged. When animals are in the wild, they are constantly challenged to obtain food and water, stay safe, and watch out for the competition. We may try to challenge our animals in every category except for water, of course. For many animals that have predatory instincts, hiding food around their enclosure helps them “exercise” their sense of smell and problem-solving skills. Many predators have calculating minds that are challenged on a daily basis in the wild, so we may have meatball hunts or puzzle feeders where the animal has to move a feeder around to get the food out.

Animals that may not hunt but do struggle to find food out in the wild are also given puzzle feeders and sometimes other challenges. For example: we may take a burlap sack, fill it with hay, bury treats in there, and spray perfume on the sack to hide the scent of the food. This gives the animals something safe to take apart and play with as they also problem solve to find their food.

One of our favorite enrichment items to use is perfume! We use it with many of our mammals for many reasons. Carnivores like to roll in something smelly so they can cover up their smell to sneak up on prey. For wolves, this behavior is also a way to communicate to the rest of their pack that they may have found a carcass that they can feed on. Something similar in purpose is hair from other animals, especially camels, for animals that need to hide a newborn from predators. Every year when the camels begin shedding their winter coats, we begin giving the shed to our large cats. They usually roll around in it, covering themselves with a new scent; for our guests visiting that day, it allows them to get some awesome photos of our animals being animals.

Keepers are given the chance to put items on a wish list that is then posted on the San Diego Zoo’s website. Our guests, members, and patrons from around the world are able to donate toward a particular enrichment item for any animal, if they wish. We were able to fund the construction of an artificial tree for one of our panda enclosures this way, and many of our animals have benefited through our Animal Care Wish List.

We hope everyone has a great holiday season. Stop by to check out our animals soon, and see if you can tell what type of enrichment they may have that day!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Long Time, No See Bears.


Pandas: Back in Main View

Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu, caught on camera this week

Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu, caught on Panda Cam this week

Pandas are officially back in the main viewing area of Panda Canyon at the San Diego Zoo. I think the cub, Xiao Liwu, is thrilled to have his favorite branch back, and Bai Yun is still trying to fit on that little hammock to take her naps. Yun Zi has plenty to keep him busy with his climbing structures and, of course, scent marking the exhibit. In fact, that was the first thing I noticed them doing when they were put back into the area; Bai Yun spent most of the day marking her territory again, mainly on the ground, and Yun Zi was even getting some handstands in there on the wall.

I’ve had a lot of questions from guests coming into the area about why we needed to close the main viewing exhibit for a while. The primary reason for closing the exhibit was to re-roof the building; after removing the old roof, additional structural repairs were completed. We also had a new cool zone pump installed. Whenever we close the exhibit, we try to get as many projects done as possible!

The first thing I noticed was how cut back many of the branches were, and they were able to cut quite a bit of the bamboo behind and around the exhibits. Cutting the branches is important for everyone’s peace of mind; although the pandas don’t jump from branches, we want to make sure that our perimeter is secure and that each bear stays inside. The bamboo trimming is also important for the health of the bamboo, to provide sunlight and ventilation. Several guests have noted that it is much easier to see the cub when he is at the top of the pine tree now that there aren’t as many branches blocking the view. Also, cutting down bamboo makes it easier for keepers to look into exhibits and possibly work with the bears along the back fence line.

Keepers were also able to put fresh soil and mulch down around the enclosure, and the bears are having a blast in it. Bai Yun and the cub have been rolling in the mulch and playing quite a bit in it. Yun Zi has also been rolling around in it, so much so that guests are asking if the pandas are unusually dirty these days. We always like to see the bears being this active, and I know that our Panda Cam viewers and guests love to have these moments on camera.

Mom and cub have been quite entertaining these days, especially when Bai Yun is trying to eat her lunch. One thing I definitely notice with this cub is how patient she is with him. I actually saw Xiao Liwu take a piece of bamboo that she was eating right out of her mouth and sit in her lap while he ate it. I’ve seen previous cubs TRY this with Bai Yun, and they were usually sent rolling down the hill! Stealing her food was something Bai Yun didn’t normally put up with. This cub, in my book, has gotten away with more than any other cub I’ve seen before.

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season and keep an eye on the Panda Cam!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Long Time, No See Bears.


Long Time, No See Bears

Bai Yun seems to like the spotlight!

Bai Yun seems to like the spotlight!

Working at the San Diego Zoo for nine years now, I’ve been able to have some amazing experiences and opportunities. One of my most recent was to go on a three-month loan to work on the Elephants Odyssey team taking care of dromedary camels, Baja pronghorn, wild burros, and a very sweet Mustang named Mo. As my loan came to an end, I was sad to leave the animals I had come to love but was curious to see how the pandas were doing, especially our little boy, Xiao Liwu!

On my first day back as a panda narrator, Bai Yun was, of course, her charming self, seeming to pose while she slept and giving her admirers good views of her while she ate. I was also lucky enough to see little Xiao Liwu roughhousing with his mother and eating thinner pieces of bamboo with great enthusiasm. When I had left on my loan, he was still just nursing, so this was awesome to see.

Mr. Yun Zi was also climbing up his trees in the neighboring enclosure and putting on a show for guests. One of the trees always sheds a lot of leaves, and it was so fun to watch him shake the tree and see how many leaves he could knock off. When I first put him on exhibit as a new little cub, his favorite “toy” we used to lure him out of his bedroom was a dried leaf. Seeing him play brought back those memories of him jumping in piles of leaves and chewing on crunchy, dried-up leaves.

As we get into the cooler months of the year, it’s always fun to watch the different activity levels of the bears and the fun enrichment that comes with it. Come see us soon!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, What about Gao Gao?


What about Gao Gao?

Gao Gao scratches an itch while relaxing in the north enclosure.

Gao Gao relaxes in the north enclosure.

Now that Bai Yun, Xiao Liwu, and Yun Zi are out in the main panda viewing area, our adult male panda Gao Gao will remain in the back with access to the north enclosure, which is now closed to guests. However, he can be seen on Panda Cam from time to time. What has he been up to these days? Relaxing. Gao Gao has been living the life off exhibit, getting back scratches from the keepers, enjoying his air-conditioned bedrooms, and eating to his little heart’s content. Currently, he weighs 176 pounds (80 kilograms) and is working on training projects with the keepers.

As many of you know, Gao Gao is trained for voluntary blood draws where he actually puts his arm through a metal sleeve and grabs a bar while a veterinarian shaves a patch of his arm and draws blood directly from a vein. Now, Gao Gao is being trained to accept blood pressure testing. He still puts his arm through the metal sleeve for keepers, but now they are able to put an actual blood-pressure cuff on his arm and begin squeezing his arm. Anytime we introduce a new behavior, it is important to take baby steps, but Gao Gao is proving to be a champ and is doing extremely well with this next phase in his training.

As our adult pandas get older, we’d like to get a baseline for their blood pressure. When we had Shi Shi, our previous adult male, we learned quite a bit about panda teeth. We’ve had Gao Gao 10 years now, and he has been trained to do so many other behaviors that help us take care of him, so why not plan for the future?

Bai Yun will also be a part of this training, but probably not while she has the cub with her. As a mom myself, I know that trying to focus on something while you have a kid climbing on you can be challenging!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo.


Pandas: Main Viewing Open!

Yun Zi kicks back to nibble on some bamboo in the main viewing area.

Yun Zi kicks back to nibble on some bamboo in the main viewing area.

Wednesday evening, we were able to open up the main viewing area of Panda Trek at the San Diego Zoo for our guests again. The walkway is now giving our guests two opportunities to view the pandas: you can walk down the front row and loop into the back row before exiting the exhibit, rather than having to choose one row or the other. The two enclosures are pretty much the same, except for one thing: the grass is finally greener and longer! Right before we began construction on the walkway, you may remember that we were able to lay some sod out, and in the several weeks that the bears have not been in the main viewing area, the grass has gotten nice and lush for the bears to rest in or play in.

Yun Zi was the first to get out into the enclosure, and I know many of you are looking forward to being able to view him again. Currently, Yun Zi weighs about 200 pounds (90 kilograms) and is looking great. Yun Zi seemed comfortable back out in the public eye, and our guests got some great views of him. From past experience, I know that the next few days will be interesting to watch as he explores the exhibit again, scent marks the walls and structures, and, of course, messes up the grass.

Bai Yun and her cub, Xiao Liwu, were brought inside yesterday as soon as we got the word that the main viewing area was ready. Keepers took advantage of the cub being out of a tree and were able to shuffle him inside with Mom last night rather than waiting until this morning, because we all know that if that cub gets up into the tree and doesn’t want to come down, we will be out of luck for viewing! Bai Yun and the cub will be given access to the main exhibit today. Keepers spent the early part of the morning making sure the exhibit was baby proofed before allowing mother and cub access. This entails making sure that branches are not too overgrown or too close to the outer area.

The keepers have put enrichment out that they know the cub enjoys in an attempt to keep him down closer to the ground, but remember that he has a mind of his own and that panda cubs do love to be up high in the trees at this age. So, if you are unable to get a decent view of him in person, or on Panda Cam,, please be patient.

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo.


Munching on Bamboo

Xiao Liwu finds a spot away from Mom to practice his bamboo-eating skills.

Xiao Liwu finds a spot away from Mom to practice his bamboo-eating skills.

As our 10-month-old panda cub becomes more and more curious about what Mom is doing with her bamboo, we are beginning to see Xiao Liwu try to pick up the leaves and maneuver them with his little paws. Although panda cubs nurse the entire 18 months they are with Mom, they typically begin eating bamboo around 12 months of age.

While we all see adults like Bai Yun eating bamboo that can be incredibly thick, cubs cannot eat the bamboo culm right away. This is, in part, because it takes some practice for them to effectively strip the outside layer of the culm. Right now, when we see the cub with bamboo, we can see that he is trying to figure out how to get a grip on the culm and find a way to grab the leaves like Mom does.

In the many years that I have been watching and taking care of the bears, I’ve noticed that Bai Yun has a pretty good system for eating her food. From far away, it looks like she wastes a lot of the culm when she strips it, but as I began cleaning her enclosures, I noticed that she does a surprisingly good job at getting the most out of her food. There are times where it looks like she is rolling the bamboo leaves into a tight wad to eat like a candy bar.

One thing I always encourage our guests to check out if they’re around while Bai Yun is eating is to watch her jaw muscles working. Even from afar, you can see the space between her ears flexing as she breaks the pieces apart. Something to observe the next time you are watching Panda Cam or here at the San Diego Zoo for a visit!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo.