When kids grow up and leave home, it’s a bittersweet day; one is glad they are doing well and starting the next stage of life while sad they are moving on. It’s the same mixture of feelings when one of our pandas goes to China to enter the breeding program. I had the honor of accompanying Yun Zi, our “teenager” panda, on his trip to China with senior keeper Jennifer Becerra.
While I am truly fond of Yun Zi, I don’t have the same intensive history with him as his keepers do. So during the planning stages of the trip, it was easy to wear my doctor hat and stick to objective medical planning like drug dosages, contingency plans, and submitting manifests for the medical supplies. As a San Diego Zoo veterinarian, my role on the trip was to be ready in case a medical emergency should occur in transit. This could be anything from injuries like a torn nail or something extreme like a forklift accident, heat stress, hypothermia, or the panda equivalent of a panic attack. I had to think of many potential problems, consider the likelihood of it happening, and then collect the medications and supplies to cover the problem, while at the same time not bring too much equipment to cause challenges in route or while going through inspections!
I calculated and re-calculated supplies and drug dosages, but even more painstaking (or at least painful!) was filling out the supporting documents to quantify and explain the supplies, including copies of my veterinary license, DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) license, proof of employment, TSA (Transportation Security Administration) clearance and letters from my boss, San Diego Zoo curators, and Chinese officials. Whew!
Veterinarians are medical professionals who love animals. We flip back and forth between our objective doctor side and our animal-lover side. The trip with Yun Zi was a great example of this split personality! On the first leg of our trip was the van ride up to Los Angeles; when I saw him in the crate, my first thoughts are things like: What is his demeanor? Do his respirations look calm? Is the crate secure? Does he need more water? Once all seemed in order, I could take a moment to enjoy watching him quietly eating some panda “bread” or witness the endearing interactions of Yun Zi with his keeper. Each leg of the journey was a similar series of serious questions and then quiet appreciation of Yun Zi. He was an excellent traveler. Yun Zi has a calm demeanor, and all the training and desensitizing his keepers did with him, exposing him to travel sights and sounds, really paid off! I was very happy that all my planning was not needed (and also glad that the customs inspection of the medical supplies went off without delay!).
Once at Shanghai, a Chinese veterinarian and a keeper/researcher from Wolong Panda Breeding Center received Yun Zi. It was clear they were very knowledgeable, and also it was clear how dedicated and caring they were. While it was sad to leave Yun Zi, it was comforting to know that the Wolong staff will care for him with the same dedication we did, and that Yun Zi will, hopefully, find some nice Chinese panda females and settle down to a long life in his native land.
Beth Bicknese is a senior veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo.