About Author: Gaylene Thomas

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China Trip Diary: Part 3

Giant pandas Su Lin and Zhen Zhen moved to Wolong, China on September 24, 2010. Gaylene accompanied them on their journey and is sharing the trip with us through blog installments. Be sure to read China Trip Diary: Part 2.

I have decided that flying with a giant panda is the way to go! Fifteen hours go by very quickly when you have a two incredible pandas to visit with and take care of. Zhen Zhen and Su Lin were troupers throughout the journey. The “What ifs” and worries of what might happen were subdued by the natural behaviors these two young pandas demonstrated in conditions far from routine. The dedicated daily care given to Su Lin and Zhen Zhen, combined with the wonderful travel training efforts provided by the keepers, set this journey up to be a success!

The plane landed in Shanghai at 7:30 a.m. (Shanghai time). Chinese officials boarded the plane to check on Su Lin and Zhen Zhen and to review permits. Tracy and I parted from the pandas to make our way through Customs. We then were driven back to the cargo section of the airport to rejoin Su Lin and Zhen. They were both awake and observing their new surroundings.

The pandas are checked by Bi Feng Xia's vet and keeper. Due to rain, the panda crates and supplies were loosely covered in plastic.

Tracy and I met with Wu Honglin and Wei Ming (veterinarian and keeper from Bi Feng Xia). I was convinced that Su Lin and Zhen were in good hands for the remainder of their journey. Tracy donated the medical equipment she packed to Wu Honglin for use at Bi Feng Xia and gave him a large envelope full of medical, diet, and husbandry information on the girls. I handed over the behavior training DVD of Zhen and Su Lin to Wei Ming; researchers had worked with keepers to document the cues and behaviors trained to Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. I also presented a bag full of clickers, the hand-held audio signal used by trainers worldwide to communicate to an animal that the response given was what the trainer had hoped for.

There was a quick photo session behind a welcoming banner with Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, Tracy, me, Wu, Wei, and airline executives…and then we parted. The goodbye was a bit abrupt due to the fact that the next flight for Su Lin and Zhen Zhen was crucial to get them to their destination without a major delay, and there was little time to spare.

From left: Veterinarian Wu, Gaylene, Tracy, and Keeper Wei

Despite my disorientation of real time, I calculated the flight time for Su Lin and Zhen Zhen to Chengdu, the ground travel time from Chengdu to Bi Feng Xia, and allowed for a two-hour window of error to determine when to begin asking Peter if Zhen and Su arrived without any problems. At approximately 7:30 p.m. Shanghai time, Peter informed Tracy and me that Su Lin and Zhen Zhen had safely arrived at Bi Feng Xia. It was time to celebrate and sleep!

There was a significant void when I returned to work. Daily, I passed by the empty exhibits of where Zhen Zhen and Su Lin had resided. News of their successful adjustment in China was comforting, but still their unique behaviors and habits were missed. I’m sure the sensitivities of Su Lin and the antics of Zhen Zhen are being appreciated by their new keepers! And, as years go by, perhaps we will hear stories of success, just as we have heard about Hua Mei and her eighth cub, born this year!

As keepers, trainers, researchers, supervisors, and veterinarians, we build a bond and can become attached with the animals we care for. To limit the animals we work with to our selfish bond would be an insult to the plight of their species. With a big lump in our throat, and often tears in our eyes, we bid farewell to the animals we have grown fond of for the ultimate cause of conservation!

Gaylene Thomas is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo.


China Trip Diary: Part 2

Tracy, left, and Gaylene pose on the truck with the pandas on moving day.

Giant pandas Su Lin and Zhen Zhen moved to Wolong, China on September 24, 2010. Gaylene accompanied them on their journey and is sharing the trip with us through blog installments. Be sure to read China Trip Diary: Part 1.

The day of departure arrived, and the keepers and I did our best to focus on the tasks we had to accomplish rather than the goodbyes we had to say. Su Lin and Zhen Zhen entered their crates and settled in. I buckled my seatbelt on the bench seat directly in front of the pandas in the cargo section of the truck, and we departed for the land portion of the journey.

Associate Curator Curby Simerson drove the truck with Senior Veterinarian Tracy Clippinger, Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, and I as passengers. Tracy gave me a quick overview of the veterinary medical equipment she packed in case of an emergency. California Highway Patrol escorted us for the seemingly quick trip to Los Angeles International airport. Lead Keeper Lisa Bryant drove the chaser truck with all the panda luggage and passengers Shea Johnson and Ken Bohn (Zoo videographer and photographer).

A crated panda is placed on a cargo pallet at the airport.

Los Angeles Airport staff greeted us when we arrived and instructed us through the steps of transferring the precious cargo from our truck to the loading warehouse. The staff was very understanding of our unique demands to remain with the pandas for every step of the process. The warehouse was busy; forklifts, boxes, pallets, and people were all on the move. The travel crates with Su Lin and Zhen Zhen inside, their supplies and food, were secured to cargo pallets. Airport staff carefully transferred the pallets to a quiet corner of the warehouse, where Su Lin and Zhen Zhen seized the opportunity for a nap.

For the next few hours Lisa, Tracy, Shea, Ken, and I stayed with Zhen and Su Lin. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials reviewed permits, observed the pandas, and confirmed the authorization of the transport. Zhen Zhen and Su Lin were comfortable enough to snack on some biscuits and a bit of bamboo. Prior to boarding the airplane, Lisa, Tracy, and I had our first opportunity to try out the travel husbandry techniques we had practiced . We successfully cleaned both crates and drinkers without causing a startle from Su Lin or Zhen Zhen. We secured all the supplies and cleaning equipment back onto the shipment pallet and were ready for the next step.

Pandas and staff are lifted up to the cargo plane.

Airport officials allowed all of us to move onto the tarmac with Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. The Boeing 777 we were about to board appeared magnified by our miniscule presence on the tarmac! Tracy and I were given quick instructions on how to safely “ride” the cargo lift, and we stepped up beside Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. We were slowly elevated until we were staring directly into the huge cargo hull. The metal pallets with us, the bears, and supplies were mechanically moved through the hull of the plane on tracks.

Loading our precious cargo first meant that Su Lin and Zhen Zhen would be in the front section of the plane, just on the other side of the wall with four passenger seats. Geographically moving from the nose of the cargo plane back was the cockpit, a small area for the crew (total of four members), a small galley area, and four passenger seats. Aboard the plane with Tracy and I was our liason to China and interpreter, Peter. Su Lin and Zhen Zhen were pretty tired at this point. The move from the warehouse to the plane was uneventful for them and didn’t interfere with another nap.

Tracy and I were given a short lesson on the emergency equipment of the aircraft. We were shown how to operate the door between us and the bears and how to use the amenities of the galley. The Chinese crew settled us in with blankets and M&Ms for a 2:30 a.m. departure.

Tracy checks on a panda after the travel crate is secure in the plane.

Shortly after take-off, Tracy and I summoned a crew member, as we were requested to do, to check on Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. We were anxious to assess the pandas’ reaction to air travel. Both bears looked very relaxed, so we elected to turn off the lights in hopes of encouraging a much-needed block of sleep time. Tracy and I checked on the bears about every four hours. Su Lin and Zhen Zhen guided our activities by their behaviors. If they were lying down and resting or sleeping, we remained quiet and moved slowly while checking on them. If they roused, we would talk to them in a quiet voice. If they seemed to respond to our presence and voice, we would offer food.

Su Lin was receptive to her standard variety of food, including bamboo culm, biscuits, carrots, yams, and apple slices. The travel crates were the perfect size for her to position herself in the classic “panda prop sit” against the wall of the crate and precisely strip and consume the bamboo. Zhen Zhen enjoyed small amounts of bamboo culm but was much more eager to take the biscuits, fruits, and veggies as I offered them through the large food hatch on the top of the crate. The cleaning routine worked just as well in the air as on land. Honey was a great distraction from the rake that cleared away debris from the crates!

Gaylene Thomas is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo.


China Trip Diary: Part 1

Keeper Juli Borowski offers bamboo through the traveling crate.

Giant pandas Su Lin and Zhen Zhen moved to Wolong, China on September 24, 2010. Gaylene accompanied them on their journey and is sharing the trip with us through blog installments.

I did my best to suppress some of the excitement in my voice as I answered “Yes” to the question put before me by San Diego Zoo Associate Curator Curby Simerson in August 2010: “Would you be willing to accompany the pandas on their trip to China?” My efforts to minimize an overly eager reply manifested into a short, quick, loud, “Yes!” It was an honor and privilege to be offered this unique assignment. The many details of it had yet to be worked out, resulting in several months of anxiety and hesitancy to make any personal travel plans.

The daily responsibilities of an animal care supervisor, much to my disappointment, do not always involve direct interaction with animals. This new assignment, however, created an important purpose for me to regularly meet with Su Lin and Zhen Zhen! The many travels to and from my office in the Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station were diverted by a greeting, and often a biscuit feeding, to my future travel companions. I worked directly with the keepers to gradually introduce the elements associated with travel to Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. My confidence in the success of the event was boosted by comments the panda keepers made regarding their comfort in me being the one to accompany the pandas to China.

Panda and traveling crate get a lift!

The sensitivity to noises and new environmental conditions that Su Lin exhibited created an escalated level of concern for the keepers and me. We proceeded very cautiously and slowly to acclimate both pandas to their travel crates and to the forklift that would be moving them. Chomping on bamboo while being in a crate lifted four feet above the ground is a good sign! Su Lin and Zhen Zhen were champs in their training to accept the machinery and activity associated with their upcoming travels. The travel crates were modified to allow doors on each end to securely be cracked open for emergency and cleaning access. The keepers and I worked with the two pandas to allow the use of a small rake to clean the crates while the pandas continued to eat.

Consider the tasks associated with preparing for an international trip, and then consider those same tasks combined with the responsibility of packing for two giant pandas. I consulted with Lead Keeper Lisa Bryant, who had a successful trip to China with Mei Sheng in 2007 (read the first of Lisa’s blog post installments on that trip, Mei Sheng, Our Precious Cargo).

I also consulted with Senior Keeper Kathy Hawk, who has an intuitive understanding of the pandas in her care. Honey, hand-picked bamboo culm, small enrichment cardboard boxes, five gallons of drinking water, favorite enrichment toys, leaf eater biscuits, apples, yams, and carrot pieces comprised the bulk of the pandas’ luggage.

Gaylene Thomas is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo.