About Author: Anastasia Horning

Posts by Anastasia Horning


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.


A Mister for Every Panda

Xiao Liwu gets comfy in the tree.

How can he rest like that?

As we move into warmer days, I know a few people watching Panda Cam have commented about seeing some “smoke” in the exhibit. Do not be alarmed! What you see are water misters we have for each panda exhibit. In the wild, these bears do deal with extreme cold in the winter and in the summer experience extreme humidity, but here in San Diego they have been a little spoiled with the nice weather that they so often enjoy.

As we head into summer, keepers have some tools to ensure that our animals are comfortable and can relax to get a break from the heat. The number one enrichment item for the summer is ice. On those hot days, keepers like to go raid the food stands for their ice to give “their” animals something cool to flop down on or sit in. We also make popsicles for them; pandas get applesauce, honey, and chunks of fruit in water that is frozen overnight. For a lot of the Zoo’s carnivores, we make “bloodsicles,” using the juice from the meat they are given, as a cool treat.

Another tool at our disposal is the mister, and it can do multiple things for the exhibit and animal. A mister can keep the dust down in the enclosure and make it easier for the keepers to clean. It also creates a cool place for the animal to sleep in so they can stay out on exhibit for our guests to see. If the area gets too warm, the pandas do have air-conditioned bedrooms as well. I always like to remind everyone that our animals’ well being does come first.

Everyone stay cool out there!

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


Pandas Move a Bit

Mr. Wu and Mom wrestle in the north exhibit's hammock

Mr. Wu and Mom wrestle in the north exhibit’s hammock

We are pleased to announce that the front viewing area of the panda exhibit in the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Trek is being remodeled so that our guests will have multiple opportunities to view the pandas. In preparation for the construction, we did some panda shuffling. Bai Yun and little Wu are currently in the north exhibit, which is open to Zoo guests. As you may recall, this is the exhibit where Xiao Liwu made his public debut back in January! Pandas Yun Zi and Gao Gao are in off-exhibit areas not accessed by Panda Cam, but rest assured they are getting plenty of attention from their keepers. We are not sure how long the construction will take: perhaps a week or so.

Thank you so much for your understanding, and please come visit us during the construction to say “Hi” to the cub!

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


Panda Cub: Rolling and Tumbling

The little cutie seems to imitate his father's relaxed eating style.

The little cutie seems to imitate his father’s relaxed eating style.

As the San Diego Zoo’s panda cub, Xiao Liwu, gets more and more confident in his enclosure, we are beginning to see some fun new behaviors from him and his mother, Bai Yun. So far, at least once a day the cub is coming down out of the tree to get some exercise with his mom and possibly nurse. The time frame and duration of his stay out of the tree has varied from day to day. Xiao Liwu enjoys coming down and jumping on his mom’s back and wrestling with her, and Bai Yun has been super patient and puts up with quite a bit of biting from her little one.

Bai Yun has been extremely relaxed these days and is maintaining a stable weight of 230 pounds (104 kilograms). She is not too rough with her cub and is showing off those mommy moves that we all love so much. As Xiao Liwu is teething and trying out the bamboo, Bai Yun has been surprisingly calm about him getting into her food and trying new pieces. When he initiates a wrestling match, she has been very obliging.

Two days ago, the cub gave our guests a heart-stopping moment—he fell out of the tree from about 20 feet (6 meters). As keeper Jen and I were talking, the cub was in the tree playing on a new branch and trying out some new moves. We looked up for a second, and Xiao Liwu rolled out of the tree! Wu never made a sound—just got right back up and continued playing. He’s moving just fine, and Bai Yun was not alarmed at all by the little oops he made from the tree.

Now I know some of you will be wondering if we need to check him or why we didn’t grab him, and the answer is simple: he’s tough! We did not see any limping or stress behavior from either Mom or cub. Panda cubs are designed to make those climbing mistakes at this young, bouncy age. That layer of baby fat helps, too!

So keep on watching and come see us soon. Just a word to the wise: there is NO schedule for when the cub comes down to play, so please remember to give him some time.

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

UPDATE: The main panda viewing area is currently closed as we make modifications to it. Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu have been moved back to the north exhibit, where they can be viewed by guests. Pandas Gao Gao and Yun Zi are off exhibit during this time.


Yun Zi Masters New Tree

Yun Zi's new "tree"

Yun Zi’s new “tree”

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This new artificial tree for Yun Zi has been a lot of fun! Zoo guests can watch our three-and-a-half-year-old panda climb all over it, and keepers can provide enrichment items in and on it in new ways. I love to watch our keepers hide food for  Yun Zi in the tree’s little nooks and crannies and throw the bamboo up high where he has to work to get it. Although he did recently pay a little too much attention to the small elm tree in his enclosure, he has been a bit better about not destroying the poor “real” tree.

As we panda narrators watch him figure out how to maneuver his way to the top of the tree, keepers have the fun job of trying to make it more difficult for him. I always tell people that bears are really never given enough credit for being problem solvers (or starters, in Yun Zi’s case!). Yun Zi, like his siblings before him, is very good at figuring out different ways of remodeling the enclosures.

A Zoo guest recently asked me why the bears don’t have more grass and plants in the exhibits. Laughingly, I replied that we try all the time to add vegetation to the exhibits, but if the bears don’t like it or want to change it, there really isn’t a whole lot we can do. I still remember the morning we put grass in with Bai Yun and Yun Zi when he was a small cub. The Horticulture Department and many other bear keepers came down to help us get everything ready for the pandas. Every single time we came in to service the enclosure, Yun Zi had moved pieces of sod around, and Bai Yun had begun to flip sod pieces over as well. At every cleaning we had to put the puzzle back together for them and hope that it would take.

Our keepers are always finding new ways to enrich our animals’ exhibits and try to out-smart our animals. We are grateful for the planning and dedication they give to each and every one of our animals!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Living Life in Front.