About Author: Debbie Andreen

Posts by Debbie Andreen


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.


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.


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.


Delightful Tasmanian Devils

Tasmanian devil Nick gets eye to eye with our photographer.

Tasmanian devil Nick gets eye to eye with our photographer.

They didn’t scream or spin around like whirling dervishes, but I found them exciting just the same as this morning we proudly unveiled the exhibit area for our new Tasmanian devils (see post Introducing our Devils). What a wonderful addition they make to the San Diego Zoo’s Australian Outback! Each of our four devils has his or her own enclosure, as these are solitary animals in the wild. Guests can view three of the enclosures, and right now, that’s where the three males—Conrad, Nick, and Jake—live. A fourth enclosure is further back and much more private, and that’s where our female, Debbie, resides at present. We are currently the only zoo in North America to have these interesting animals, and we hope to share their conservation story with our guests.

Dignitaries representing Australia and its island state of Tasmania, which is where Tasmanian devils hail from, spoke at the opening ceremony. The Honorable Brian Wightman MP, minister for environment, parks, and heritage in Tasmania, related that wild devil populations have dropped dramatically due to a deadly cancer called devil facial tumor disease. Tasmania has already lost a valuable animal, the Tasmanian tiger or thylacine, to disease and human encroachment, and Mr. Wightman said his state is determined to keep from losing another native carnivore by working with global partners. San Diego Zoo Global is a proud partner of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, which is based in Tasmania. Karen Lanyon, consul-general for the Australian consulate general, mentioned that the links between our zoo and her country are “getting stronger,” and she welcomed the devils to “her patch” of southern California. She told me later that the devils’ new home was “gorgeous!”

Alistair Scott, the general manager of resource management and conservation for the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment in Tasmania, admitted that Tasmanians “like to do things ourselves,” but as the devil facial tumor disease has worked its way across the state, asking for help from global partners is the right thing to do. Here’s more information on the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program

For now, our keepers are pleased that the four devils are settling in nicely to their new home and are coping well with their first look at Zoo guests. Their enclosures are filled with soft mulch for the digging activities devils crave, as well as a variety of bushes and ferns, which provide cover for the animals if wanted. What’s really neat are the dens attached to two of the enclosures: when a devil goes inside the cozy den, guests can get up nice and close for some eye-to-eye views, courtesy of the glass panels.

I learned that Jake likes to pull out newly planted vegetation and bring it into his den, which is fun for us to watch but will keep our horticulture staff busy! Nick, apparently, is the most active of the devils and seems to be a people-watcher. During the ceremony, I could see him on his hind legs in his glass-walled den, looking on with great interest! With his mouth, Conrad grabbed a large cow knuckle bone, which had to be heavy, as if it were a breakfast pastry and took off with it to parts unknown. Mr. Wightman told me that listening to devils crunch on bones is a sound you never forget! Debbie (love that name!) is the timid and shy devil of the group, yet she and Jake can see each other through a glass panel separating their enclosures, and keepers told me that both animals seem to enjoy this visual enrichment.

How will you know “who is who” when you come to welcome them? Each enclosure has a sign with the devil’s name and a bit about its personality. I was smitten with these animated animals. I hope you will be, too!

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, The Scoop on Panda Poop.


The Scoop on Panda Poop

Yun Zi munches his bamboo like a pro!

Yun Zi munches his bamboo like a pro!

I spoke with panda narrator Alyssa Medeiros to get the latest on our bamboo bears. Alyssa has been helping the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Team as a panda keeper these days and promises to write a blog about that experience when she can. In the meantime, she shared some fun stuff about our two youngest bears.

Yun Zi is a typical “teenaged mess maker,” according to Alyssa. This four year old panda continues to rip and shred anything he can get his paws on. Yet his most challenging mess for keepers to clean is his location of choice for bathroom duties. Yun Zi has decided that the top of the artificial den is the perfect spot. Why does this make extra work for his caretakers? The poop goes into the den’s nooks and crannies, making it more difficult to clean. Apparently, he cares not!

Xiao Liwu, nicknamed Mr. Wu, is now leaving “treasures” behind. Previously, his mother, Bai Yun, would clean up any waste her cub left behind, presumably so predators would not be alerted to his presence. But now that he is larger and starting to ingest, rather than just mouth, bamboo leaves, he is producing “little gifts.” Apparently, Bai Yun is willing to let keepers dispose of them these days. Talk about room service! Alyssa says that Mr. Wu is also chewing on sticks and attempting to peel the larger bamboo culms—an advanced skill for a panda boy of just 14 months. He has not attempted to chew those culms yet but often mouths some of Bai Yun’s shredded leftovers.

Xiao Liwu’s training sessions continue, and Alyssa is quite proud of his progress. He has learned to touch his nose to a pool buoy on a stick (it looks like a very large Q-tip!) and to a dot on the wall for a honey water reward. And he is getting better at shifting off the exhibit and into his bedroom when asked.

Thank you for the update, Alyssa!

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Our Panda Family.


Our Panda Family

Mother and son enjoy a playful moment on Panda Cam.

Mother and son enjoy a playful moment on Panda Cam.

What’s that little panda rascal been up to these days? I spoke with Senior Keeper Kathy Hawk this morning to get the latest on the panda family at the San Diego Zoo. Let’s start with Xiao Liwu, our one-year-old cutie. He likes to do things on his own time. Kathy knows he knows what is expected of him when keepers call him to come over to the back fence line for some of that tasty honey water, and to then shift into his bedroom, but he doesn’t always feel like coming. Sometimes he’d just rather stay up in his favorite tree or nap in his hammock. Kathy assured me this is very typical of cubs this age!

“Mr. Wu” is eating bits of bamboo leaves and stems and apple slices but is still more interested in Mama Bai Yun’s milk bar, which again is natural at this age. In a few months, he’ll become more food motivated. Kathy mentioned that he is more aware of and interested in his surroundings rather than just focused on what Mom is doing. Mr. Wu now weighs 53 pounds (24 kilograms).

Bai Yun is “looking really good,” says Kathy. She is eating well and maintaining a nice, consistent weight for a nursing panda at 214 pounds (97.3 kilograms). And we all saw how much she enjoyed her birthday cake two weeks ago!

Her older son, Yun Zi, had his annual vaccination and his very first blood draw, with Keeper Jen Becerra assisting. You may notice the shaved spot on his arm. Kathy was very proud of his cooperation with Jen during this procedure. Four-year-old Yun Zi now weighs 197.7 pounds (89.7 kilograms), long ago surpassing his father in heft. What a big boy!

Gao Gao is also doing well, keeping cool and comfy in his off-exhibit area. Apparently, our father panda has never been a fan of warmer weather but doesn’t always exercise common sense about finding ways to cool off. Therefore, keepers proactively bring him into his air-conditioned bedrooms if it starts to get too warm for him. Kathy shared that Gao Gao LOVES attention from his keepers and solicits back scratches from them by calling to them, rubbing up against the chain link safety barriers, or sucking on his paws in a way that she said is so endearing that she can’t help but give him a scritch or two. To help with his digestion on warmer days, he is given probiotics, hidden in a Gao Gao favorite: applesauce. His preferred position for enjoying this treat? On his back, looking adorable! I sense another back scratch coming…

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Xiao Liwu: A Gentle Soul.


Xiao Liwu: A Gentle Soul

Xiao Liwu continues to grow, learn, and thrive at the San Diego Zoo.

Xiao Liwu continues to grow, learn, and thrive at the San Diego Zoo.

I spoke with long-time panda keeper Kathy Hawk to get an update on our youngest panda, Xiao Liwu, who is now one year old. She described him as a gentle soul—at least so far! “He’s different from his siblings. He’s very mellow around us.” Keepers are still able to enter the exhibit when he is in there, and he doesn’t treat them like a toy to play with or a tree to try to climb like our previous cubs have done.

Kathy explained that the “light bulb” has gone off in his head, and Xiao Liwu now seems to understand that a delicious honey water treat is his reward if he comes when keepers call him. As such, “Mr. Wu” is more consistently starting to shift from his exhibit enclosure to his bedroom when asked. Here’s how it works: a keeper stands at the fence line and calls his name. If Mr. Wu comes over, whether down from the tree or from playing or sleeping, and touches his nose to a target, the keeper clicks a clicker to let him know he did as asked and rewards him with sips of honey water. Kathy said our little man LOVES that honey water! However, Xiao Liwu is “still a baby,” and, although he now understands what is asked of him, he may not always choose to comply! Sound familiar to you parents out there?

Xiao Liwu is nibbling on bamboo a bit but prefers apple slices and folivore biscuits that have been soaked in water for him. At this stage in his life, he does not compete with his mother, Bai Yun, for the biscuits or the bamboo. Mr. Wu still spends a good deal of time up in the trees, as cubs do at this age, and this does not bother keepers or his mother. Kathy has never heard Bai Yun call for him to come down!

Kathy also described that all six panda cubs she has worked with have gone through a stage where they get extra-sensitive to noise and react strongly to sudden, loud sounds by running or walking quickly, or even frothing at the mouth. Perhaps their sense of hearing becomes more acute at this age, and they react to sounds they ignored as toddlers. You may see this now with Mr. Wu, but Kathy wanted to reassure panda fans that this, too, shall pass!

Snow day for all of our pandas will be on Thursday, August 29. Approximately 30,000 pounds of snow will be blown into the exhibits early that morning, and the pandas will be released into the white stuff around 8 a.m. for Panda Cam viewers to enjoy, including some for Gao Gao. The Zoo opens at 9 a.m., and if you’re lucky enough to be here that day, do come and watch the fun!

This special snow day enrichment for our pandas was made possible by generous donors who contributed to the Zoo’s online Animal Care Wish List. There are other items on this month’s Wish List for our pandas, such as composite wood for custom-made toys, perfume, bark logs, and coconuts, starting at just $9. Other Zoo bears have added their wish list requests as well, including snowballs in $10 increments for our polar bears. Check it out!

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


Panda Party: Wu Hoo!

Giant Panda Climbs Cake During First Birthday at San Diego ZooToday we celebrated Xiao Liwu’s first birthday, with the help of a delicious 200-pound ice cake, colorful gifts, and adoring panda fans.

The cake was beautiful to look at as well as tasty for the birthday boy and his mother, Bai Yun. It was tinged orange with a “frosting” of mashed carrots and sweet potatoes and had the words “Mr. Wu” on the base and the large “1” on the top. There were several cardboard boxes on the ground, some painted to look like presents, one in the shape of a gorilla, and one as a giraffe, all filled with hay and biscuits. Several small pink boxes decorated with little pandas were hanging from the tree like piñatas and filled with goodies, too.

There was some concern that the cub would stay up in the tree for the festivities, but he was down when keepers came in this morning and so joined his mother in the bedroom while the exhibit was decorated. When all the goodies were in place, the door was opened to release the pair, and we all held our collective breath, cameras at the ready. It took a few minutes before Bai Yun came out and promptly ripped open the first present she came to before plopping down at the edge of the pool, with her nose seeming to touch the surface. Xiao Liwu hung back at first, but as his mother rested, he came around the front and spied the “gorilla,” which gave him a start! But he recovered and meandered up to the cake, sat right in front of it, and started to explore it gingerly with his mouth and nose. Soon, Bai Yun joined him there, and they seemed to share it quite well.

Keepers were not surprised at his mellow reaction to the cake, and I’m sure everyone there got great photos of our now 42-pound panda boy. He even climbed into the tree to grab at the little piñatas, making for more photo opportunities. I noticed even Yun Zi was interested, climbing high in his artificial tree to better see what all the fuss was about next door. His turn for an ice cake will come next week, August 5, when he turns four.

Happy birthday, Mr. Wu!

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

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Yun Zi: Teen Appetite

Yun Zi chows down. He's the biggest eater in the family now!

Yun Zi chows down. He’s the biggest eater in the family now!

It was another calm and peaceful morning in Panda Trek today. My goal? To find out what Yun Zi’s been up to! Kathy Hawk, senior keeper, filled me in while cleaning the takins’ large enclosure. I tell you—these keepers are great at multi-tasking.

Xiao Liwu was way up high in the pine tree, Bai Yun was gracefully draped on the branch above the den, and Yun Zi was sleeping on the ground facing the pool and surrounded by fresh stalks of bamboo. When he wakes up, all he’ll have to do is turn over for his next snack!

Kathy said Yun Zi, who will be four years old next month, seems to enjoy being back in the main viewing area. He loves his swing (a round, hard-plastic disc suspended from branches), but it is one of many activity items that rotate in and out for him to play with so no one thing gets too “old.” He also likes to pull out the plants that adorn his new artificial tree, but Kathy said it’s no problem for keepers to put them back in place. (He sure has THEM trained, doesn’t he?)

Our big boy is mellowing out, but he is now our best bamboo eater with a typical teen-age appetite. New for our pandas: banana- and cinnamon-flavored biscuits! They still contain all the nutrients of our standard biscuits for leaf-eating animals, but with the added taste of banana or cinnamon. These new biscuits have been a big hit with Bai Yun and Yun Zi—they LOVE them!—but Gao Gao prefers to eat them only when drizzled with honey. On a side note, Kathy shared that the Zoo’s tufted deer absolutely love the banana-flavored biscuits. Who knew?!

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


Beautiful Bai Yun

This is Bai Yun in 2005 and shows the bamboo leaves.

This is Bai Yun in 2005 with some leafy bamboo.

I sometimes spend way too much time in front of my computer! This morning, I decided to check on my panda friends in person, rather than on Panda Cam, something I don’t do often enough. The Zoo was just opening for the day, so I was one of the first people to enter the panda viewing area, and it was cool and peaceful.

Mr. Wu was high in the tree–I think guests riding our Skyfari aerial tram could see him better than I could! But mama Bai Yun was right up front, sitting on her haunches and contentedly eating breakfast. It struck me hard how gorgeous she is! And how large she is! She had a huge pile of bamboo “tips” to her right. By tips, I mean long, thin branches with rich-green leaves. She would grab a clump of the branches and, with one sweeping motion of her mouth, peel the leaves right off so that they stuck out of the side of her mouth briefly before she swallowed them. In any other creature, it would have looked comical, but there is a grace and confidence about Bai Yun that inspires admiration and awe.

I stood watching her as she calmly ate in this fashion. She paused and looked me right in the eye (be still, my heart!), and then she continued her meal. I finally tore myself away from her to see what Yun Zi was doing in the enclosure next door. He was on top of the artificial den, flat on his back and sound asleep. But that’s okay: Bai Yun and I shared a beautiful summer morning. What a great way to start the day. I may have to do this more often!

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, New Koala Exhibit Now Open.