About Author: Jennifer Becerra

Posts by Jennifer Becerra


In Peaceful Panda Canyon


Bai Yun is back on exhibit and delighting guests.

As we enter fall at the San Diego Zoo, things start to slow down in the Panda Canyon. Bai Yun did not have a cub this year and she is enjoying her alone time.  She is back on exhibit, so everyone can visit her in person or through Panda Cam. She’s doing well and is good at reminding her keepers that she is the Queen B (as in Bear). If she doesn’t get her way, she knows how to get her keepers attention by climbing the small elm tree in her exhibit.

Gao Gao has now moved off exhibit but you may sometimes see him on Panda Cam relaxing on his shelf.  He is also enjoying his air-conditioned bedrooms and his daily back scratches from his keepers. As Gao Gao ages, we are watching him and monitoring his health more closely. An example of this is his participation of presenting his arm for blood pressure readings once a week.  We get important information, and he gets to enjoy his favorite treat of honey water during these training sessions.

Xiao Liwu continues to excel with all his training. He, too, gets his blood pressure read once a week as a comparison to Gao Gao’s readings. He has not had to learn any new behaviors lately, but he has learned to train his keepers. Mr. Wu now asks for several back scratches, just like his dad! He is now considered a subadult and has been having several highly energetic bouts playing with his enrichment toys and destroying plants. He has been testing several tree branches in his exhibit—we find them the next morning.  He has turned into a mighty little bear at 157 pounds (71 kilograms) and is almost bigger than his dad, who weighs 169 pounds (77 kilograms).

I hope all of his fans heard that Mr. Wu won the “snowball fight” (a friendly fundraising effort) against the polar bears. We are looking forward to a snow day once the weather gets cooler in San Diego. The date is tentatively set for November 13, but we will keep everyone updated if that day changes.

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Ahoy! Let’s Celebrate Xiao Liwu’s Birthday!


Ahoy! Let’s Celebrate Xiao Liwu’s Birthday!


Flashback to Xiao Liwu’s first photo at about a month old. Oh, that face!

Xiao Liwu’s 3rd Birthday is July 29th  but we are going to have his big party on August 1st for him, beginning at 9 a.m. (US Pacific Daylight Time), so mark your calendars and set your alarm!  We are looking forward to seeing what his ice cake (crafted by our creative Forage Team) looks like this year. We as a team always enjoy this little surprise and the only hint we have had is that it is orange. (You can read about how an ice cake is made here.)

“X marks the spot” when the Forage Team delivers the cake at 8:45 a.m., while we keepers put out all his enrichment.  The birthday boy will be able to come aboard his exhibit at 9:15 a.m., right after the Zoo opens so all of his crew and friends can be there to watch him enjoy his cake and “presents.”  Mr. Wu  has commandeered the cave exhibit, so his fans will have a bigger space to view the celebration.  This is also the better exhibit for Panda Cam viewing so all the Panda Fans that cannot be there in person can celebrate with us, too!

Mr. Wu still is our “Little Gift” and amazes us everyday. He is now 149.6 pounds (68 kilograms) and is still small but mighty. He has been going through the destructive phase, testing the limits of every climbing branch and log in his exhibit.  So be ready for the fact that there may be times that he falls or gets a new scrape, just like any young boy would.  He has many playful bouts of running around and enjoying his enrichment, but he still remains patient during his training sessions.  We have taken a little break with his blood pressure readings, as Bai Yun has been having full access to the training crate.

As keepers we look forward to this time to give all our pandas extra enrichment in celebration of this milestone—another year closer to being an adult (which usually is around five years of age).  If you are able to come to the celebration in person, please also stop over at our Volunteer table to learn about giant pandas and look at our special artifacts.

We know one day that Mr. Wu will add to the genetic diversity of future giant pandas and maybe even one day his future cubs will be candidates for release into the wild. In this way and so many others he is a “Little Gift” that keeps on giving!

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Happy Anniversary, Gao Gao.


Happy Anniversary, Gao Gao!

Celebrating a dozen delightful years with Gao Gao!

January 15, 2015 marks a dozen delightful years with Gao Gao at the Zoo!

Gao Gao’s 12th anniversary (he arrived in San Diego Jan. 15, 2003) is coming up at the San Diego Zoo and what a glorious time it has been. He has been the perfect mate for Bai Yun and has fathered five cubs (Mei Sheng, Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, Yun Zi, and Xiao Liwu). He may be small but he has a huge personality and presence among his keepers. As he always enjoys and demands his daily scratches from us.

This Thursday, Gao Gao will have a quiet anniversary celebration in the Classroom Exhibit with some special enrichment throughout the day that will include his favorite scents: cinnamon spice, ginseng root perfume, and rubbing alcohol!. He does not get an ice cake anymore due to his old teeth, but he will get extra apples and honey, and my favorite part of the day—extra scratches from his keepers.

Lately, Gao Gao has preferred the quiet life of living in the classroom exhibits with access to his bedroom whenever he desires. His exhibit is not open to the public and only gets visits by early morning tours and special behind the scenes events. You can see him on Panda Cam Daily from 6:30a.m. until 2:30p.m. PST.

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Party for Mr. Wu.


Panda Party for Mr. Wu

Just wait until Mr. Wu sees his birthday ice cake!

Just wait until Mr. Wu sees his birthday ice cake!

Xiao Liwu’s birthday party is just around the corner—July 29! The time does fly by fast as this little panda guy is turning 2! Come join us to celebrate his birthday starting at 9 a.m. in the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Trek! If you cannot join us in person, make sure you tune in to the Panda Cam at about 8:50 a.m., when “Mr. Wu” is scheduled to come out on exhibit. Our Forage Department has been putting their creative caps on and working hard for a couple of weeks to make another masterpiece cake (and they get better and better every year, don’t they?). I have only seen a sneak peek of this one, and it has a Day at the Beach theme. All Wu fans are invited—make sure you wear your sunscreen, best beach hat, and flip flops for this big event! We will see what Mr. Wu thinks of water after this day!

Xiao Liwu now weighs 88 pounds (40 kilograms). And what would Mr. Wu want for his birthday? A $14 donation to the Zoo’s Animal Care Wish List goes toward our enrichment program, which funds items such as new hammocks, perfumes (his favorite scents are ginseng root, wintergreen, and cinnamon), materials to make a slide, and some edible goodies, which can enrich the lives for so many of our animals. You can also Adopt a Panda, which helps fund the Zoo’s enrichment program, and perhaps take home your own panda plush to call Mr. Wu.

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, “Go Potty,” Xiao Liwu.


“Go potty,” Xiao Liwu

What a clever panda boy we have!

What a clever panda boy we have!

Many of you have wondered how we trained the San Diego Zoo’s panda youngster, Xiao Liwu, to provide a urine sample upon request. Teaching a bear to urinate on command takes a lot of patience and observation of the bear and his or her habits. We used a method called capturing a behavior.

We noticed that when “Mr. Wu” shifts off exhibit and goes into the tunnel, which has a concrete floor, he would, fairly regularly, go to the bathroom before he went into his bedroom. Urine is a very important tool for information about any animal to determine health or hormone levels. So, we started keeping a water syringe and extra apples with us when we started shifting him in at night. When we “caught” him going potty, we would say “go potty” and show him the syringe. When he was done, we would offer him his verbal cue, “Good,” and an apple reward.

After about two weeks of this, he started to go potty when we asked him to. We then use the syringe to collect his urine sample off the concrete floor, which is cleaned every day and night. No cup or pan needed!

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Yun Zi Travels to China, Part 2.


Yun Zi Travels to China, Part 2

Dr. Beth (at right) and Jennifer pose with their flight captain.

Dr. Beth (at right) and Jennifer pose with their flight captain.

Be sure to read Yun Zi Travels to China, Part 1!

Panda Yun Zi was a natural traveler in the van all the way to the Los Angeles Airport. He sat quietly in his crate and ate bamboo all the way. When we got to the airport, he decided to take a nap while we waited to get checked by security. We had to wait a short time before Yun Zi and all of his luggage was strapped down safely onto a pallet and ready to load onto the plane. The pilots were very kind to ask what temperature and light settings would make Yun Zi most comfortable in cargo during our long flight.

The time flew by, and before I knew it, Yun Zi, Dr. Beth Bicknese, and I were boarded onto the plane. Yun Zi was nice and calm all the way onto the plane. Not me! I was super-nervous, as this was my first flight overseas and flying on a large cargo plane. We met with all five pilots and introduced them to Yun Zi. He did extremely well meeting the pilots, and they even spoke a little Chinese (Mandarin) so he could practice.

Jennifer and Dr. Beth meet Yun Zi's new keepers upon arrival.

Jennifer and Dr. Beth meet Yun Zi’s new keepers upon arrival.

Our flight departed around 9 p.m., and we were off for our 22-hour journey. The airlines and the pilots were wonderful, as we all felt like we were in first class. They understood our needs and the care we needed to provide Yun Zi on his flight. Dr. Beth and I did not get much sleep on the plane, as we were making sure Yun Zi was as comfortable as possible. It was extremely easy to access Yun Zi, as he was only behind one door, and we checked on him every three to four hours.

I will tell you he was a much better flyer than I! Every time I checked on him, he was resting and calm. He enjoyed his biscuits, bread, and honey water in first-class style. I didn’t sleep much at all, wanting to make sure he was comfortable, and I was reassured every time I checked on him that he was calm. The flight was entirely at night as we flew up the coastline to Alaska and over the Pacific Ocean and landed in Shanghai two hours early, around 6 a.m.

When we landed, we were greeted by airline security, and the pilots quickly took us through customs so we could get back to Yun Zi. It was wintertime in Shanghai, and lucky Yun Zi had his fur coat on, as it was 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside. We waited for Yun Zi to be unloaded and noticed his small welcoming party (small because we landed two hours early!). Dr. Beth and I were immediately introduced to one of his new keepers (Mr. Strong) and veterinarians (Mr. Deng). They checked on Yun Zi and offered him a fresh apple. Yun Zi was polite but decided he would rather sleep.

And off he goes to his new home!

And off he goes to his new home!

Dr. Beth and I passed along Yun Zi’s training video (we had made a video for his new keepers to show them what he knows so far) and all his information to his new keepers. Mr. Deng asked several typical questions about Yun Zi: how much he eats, how much he poops in a day, his favorite scents, and favorite toys. We talked about his training and how he likes to see people.

I know Yun Zi is in good hands with his new staff and was ready for his journey to Wolong with them. I did leave a little piece of my heart in Shanghai that day, but I know Yun Zi will do well in China.

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Yun Zi Travels to China: Part 1

Yun Zi enjoys lunch in his traveling crate.

Yun Zi enjoys lunch in his traveling crate.

I have been extremely fortunate to know Yun Zi since the day he was born four and a half years ago. I fell in love with him the first time I saw those blue and mischievous eyes. He has taught me so much about taking care of pandas, patience, and training. But he would tell you he has me trained! So when my supervisor asked if I wanted to accompany him to China, there was only one thing for me to say, and that was “Yes!”

At that moment I felt extremely privileged to be able to care for Yun Zi on this adventure to his new home in Wolong, China. A soon as I knew this information, I had a checklist of everything we needed to do to prepare Yun Zi for his trip. I knew Dr. Beth Bicknese, our veterinarian, would be joining us on the trip so I wouldn’t be alone.

The first thing and easiest part was picking out a travel crate for Yun Zi. We chose the same crate that his sister, Su Lin, used for her trip to China. Our lead keeper delivered the crate near Yun Zi’s bedrooms so he was able to see it. We then started feeding Yun Zi some of his bamboo and treats in his crate with the door open. Yun Zi is very adaptable and would sit and eat in his crate calmly; soon after, we were able to close the crate door while he was in there. At this point, we needed to increase the time he spent in his crate, and that meant he had to move off exhibit, away from public view.

Daily, Yun Zi started eating his lunch in his travel crate with his keepers near by to keep an eye on him. These sessions would last one to two hours, and we varied the time he was in the crate. Then came the scary part: we drove a forklift toward his crate, and Yun Zi proved that it wasn’t a scary thing at all! He sat calmly, eating his bamboo as our supervisor lifted him in his crate. He was excelling at all his preparations, including having someone standing on top of his crate, loud noises, and seeing groups of strangers around him (thanks to help from our panda narrators and educators).

The last major thing he had to do was his final physical exam with Dr. Beth and the other veterinarians. Yun Zi passed his exam with flying colors and was deemed healthy for his long journey. He even excelled at giving a voluntary blood sample two days after his exam!

Yun Zi made his part look easy. As the keeper going with him, I was assigned, with my supervisor’s help, to prepare all his luggage and things he would need along the journey. I picked out two of his favorite toys to take with him: a plastic donut and his PVC puzzle feeder (sadly, his swing was too big to come with us). We packed gloves, garbage bags, towels, a rake, shredded paper, squirt bottles, honey packets, a jug of water, biscuits, bamboo bread, and his favorite bamboo.

Suzanne Hall, one of our panda researchers, helped me make a training video of all the behaviors that Yun Zi knows. I know everyone is curious about Yun Zi not knowing the Mandarin language, but we prepare our pandas for this. We train them with verbal cues in English and hand cues/gestures. The video shows both cues, so when his new keeper performs the hand cue for “sit,” Yun Zi will know that he is supposed to sit. This will help him eventually learn the language and his new keepers.

Most of his meals will be the same. We have the ingredients to prepare Wolong panda bread, and Yun Zi really enjoys it. The bread is to replace the cinnamon-flavored high-fiber biscuits we offer our pandas. He will still get his regular diet of bamboo plus apples and carrots.

When the day came to leave (January 9) it was like any other day for Yun Zi: he walked into his crate to have lunch. When he was comfortable and eating his bamboo, the forklift picked up Yun Zi in his crate, and we loaded him in his transport van. Dr. Beth, Yun Zi, and I had our luggage, and we were ready to go to the Los Angeles airport.

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Birthday Plans for Yun Zi.


Birthday Plans for Yun Zi

Yun Zi over the years

Yun Zi over the years

Xiao Liwu’s first birthday on July 29 has come and gone (see Panda Party: Wu Hoo!), and now it’s Yun Zi’s turn to celebrate! His fourth birthday is on Monday, August 5. At 210 pounds (95 kilograms), Yun Zi has turned into quite a handsome bear with plenty of personality. He still enjoys climbing and redecorating his exhibit when we least expect it and is always challenging us to come up with better and more creative enrichment for him.

Yun Zi excels at all his training on the different husbandry behaviors we’d like him to know and already has a long list of them mastered. Currently, he is working on presenting his arm through a metal sleeve so we can draw a blood sample from him. He is doing extremely well, and we are working on the “patience” part where he leaves his arm in the sleeve for longer periods of time.

Yun Zi enjoys his cake at his third birthday party last summer.

Yun Zi enjoys his cake at his third birthday party last summer.

We are kicking off his birthday party a little early this year. Our Black & White Overnight campers will be creating different, colorful cardboard gift boxes filled with goodies to present to him on Sunday, August 4. After the gifts have been set out in the exhibit for him, campers will gather in front of his exhibit to watch him enjoy opening them. We hope to have our Panda Cam catch them waving to panda fans everywhere between 8:35 and 8:45 a.m.

On Monday, August 5, the Birthday Boy will be receiving more gifts and a world-famous ice cake from our wonderful Forage Department “pastry chefs” to enjoy when he is let out into his exhibit at 9 a.m. I can’t wait to see what it will look like!

When Yun Zi breaks off that number “4” on the top of his cake, he will most likely be making his birthday wish. And what does this bear want for his birthday? A higher swing, a hammock, more back scratches, more bamboo…. I am sure he has a long list, and we are working on all of these presents for him. If you’d like to help, be sure to visit this month’s Animal Care Wish List.

Yun Zi when he was a wee cub

Yun Zi when he was a wee cub

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Birthday Plans for Xiao Liwu.


Birthday Plans for Xiao Liwu

Will Xiao Liwu come down from the tree for his birthday cake? Stay tuned!

Will Xiao Liwu come down from the tree for his birthday cake? Stay tuned!

It’s that time of the year again to order the birthday cake, wrap the presents, and celebrate with the San Diego Zoo—Mr. Wu’s first birthday is on Monday, July 29! This is a milestone for the Zoo, and we are the fortunate ones to celebrate our sixth panda first birthday with this “little gift.”

I placed the order for Mr. Wu’s birthday cake on July 1, as it takes our Forage Team around a month to plan and create their world-famous ice cakes. Our Forage Team folks always have amazing ideas and are very creative with their cakes. I continue to be amazed at what they can do with ice, and so are the bears! I am always tempted to take an early look at the cake, but I never do, as I like to keep it a surprise. The cake is always bigger and better than the year before.

Make sure you join us for Xiao Liwu’s special day and wear your favorite panda-themed clothes or something black, white, and red (we panda keepers will be in red for the occasion). Mr. Wu will have his cake presentation around 8:45 a.m. for special donors and the media, and the Zoo opens at 9 a.m. Make sure you are getting your cameras ready and/or watching Panda Cam!

There will not be snow in the forecast for his birthday, because he is not shifting off exhibit consistently yet, and we do not want to frighten him with the loud snow-blowing machines. There will be snow in the next month or so—we will let you know the exact date once that’s been determined. But be prepared that Mr. Wu might be enjoying his birthday festivities from high in the trees if anything makes him a little nervous. He has also made a Wish List for his birthday that will be posted on July 29. We’ll provide the link at that time.

By the way, Mr. Wu weighs 40 pounds (18 kilograms) now.

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Comparing Panda Brothers.


Comparing Panda Brothers

Bai Yun seems to be keeping an eye on her cub in this Panda Cam screen shot.

Bai Yun seems to be keeping an eye on her cub in this Panda Cam screen shot.

Xiao Liwu is a very different cub from his older brother, Yun Zi, but in a good way. He is very smart and is the youngest cub to respond so well to us keepers. Yun Zi did not start shift training (learning to move on and off exhibit when requested) until he was a little older than Mr. Wu is now (9 months old).

The important thing to have with the training and shifting is a reward (usually food) motivation. Yun Zi enjoyed honey water, and he was really good at following Bai Yun when she went into the bedroom, and after he arrived in the bedroom, he would come to us for his reward for coming inside.

Mr. Wu has plenty of motivation with play to follow us to the shift door, but he has learned that the play ends at the door. And sometimes he seems to just want to be carried to the shift door, so we keepers can do all the work! When he starts eating diet items regularly, he will start being motivated to come inside when asked. Xiao Liwu now weighs 31.7 pounds (14.4 kilograms).

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.