About Author: Karen Barnes

Posts by Karen Barnes


Planning a Panda Exhibit

A question was asked a while back about how a panda exhibit is designed. For any animal, a number of factors decide the eventual design of a San Diego Zoo exhibit. Architects create a concept using the space available and specific needs of the animal, working in conjunction with animal care staff. Once the size of the exhibit is established, the quality of that space is the focus. The habitat from which the animal originates, its temperature and/or humidity and/or photo period needs are considered. The design will take into account any specialized locomotion, resting, or hiding adaptations. One can see these factors in action on our panda exhibits.

Pandas are good climbers, so sturdy climbing structures are needed. They often prefer to rest off the ground, so structures should provide resting platforms or forks and bedrooms need to contain elevated options. Pandas prefer cooler over warmer weather. Exhibit fans and misters can be used when temps climb too high, and bedrooms are temperature-controlled. Pandas require a small pond through which they can walk or in which they can rest when the weather warms. Mature trees provide shade, and small plants are fun for the pandas to hide in or pull apart, as well as for general aesthetics. Periodically, sod is added for enrichment or grass seed put down in exhibits, but these have to be replenished due to wear and tear from the animals and from the raking done by the keepers when the exhibits are cleaned three times daily. A cave or large box can be provided for shelter. Sturdy bolts are positioned for hanging enrichment toys.

Currently, with five pandas in residence, we have a full house. Once Su Lin and Zhen Zhen move to China, we hope to be able to refurbish our panda exhibits. We have very large logs set aside for use in creating new climbing structures and a couple of mature trees will be added to one of the exhibits. These will be major renovations and will require the rental of a crane in order to lift and position these items within the exhibits. Thanks to our generous panda fans, money for the crane’s rental was successfully raised. This will be a good time to renew grass and smaller plants, too.

The renovations will be a lot of hard work for our own staff and for colleagues in other departments, such as Horticulture and Construction and Maintenance. However, the fun of watching the pandas explore and enjoy their remodeled homes will be well worth it!

Karen Barnes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Keeper’s Day, Part 3.

Update: Su Lin and Zhen Zhen are continuing their crate training for their pending departure to China. Their move will come soon. We thank you all for your support as the Zoo prepares the duo for the next chapter in their life. They will be missed.


Panda Keeper Day, Part 3

Yun Zi keeps his caregivers busy.

Be sure to read Panda Keeper’s Day and Panda Keeper’s Day, Part 2.

By the end of the mid-day feedings at the San Diego Zoo, it is time for the late-shift keeper to take lunch. The other keeper(s) are busy recording the bamboo weights of the prepared bundles and the weights of the leftover bamboo for each feeding. Notations are made in the daily diaries for pandas and for the deer. A training log is completed for each animal after each training session. A daily keeper report must be completed, highlighting the more significant events of the day, such as medications given or training done or each panda’s weight and overnight bamboo consumption or work completed in the area by another department, such as Construction & Maintenance Department staff clearing a drain or Horticulture Department staff thinning the plants in one of the deer exhibits.

In addition to the paperwork, other chores are done; such tasks include tidying leaf litter in the area; cleaning the bamboo cooler; returning to a deer exhibit to rake leaf litter or replace the hay under a shelter; perhaps returning a phone call or an e-mail; preparing the additional food items for the next day’s diet, such as folivore (leafeater) biscuits, and apples, yams, and carrots for the pandas, and chopped yams and carrots for the deer.

The early keeper(s) leave in the afternoon, taking the daily keeper report with them. The late keeper sets up the rooms for Gao Gao and Zhen Zhen with their last feeding of the day. As each is brought into their respective rooms, their enclosures are cleaned and the pond drained in preparation for the next morning. The other exhibits are also cleaned and new food made available. At this time, the urine holes in Su Lin’s bedroom will be thoroughly dried in preparation for tomorrow’s urine collection. All locks are checked and certain lights turned on as the facility is closed for the evening. Now that we are into later summer hours, a late keeper from another area will give bedroom access for the exhibits later in the evening.

Panda keepers are part of the Sun Bear Forest team. Certain species require bedroom access later in the day. Usually, the sun bear area keepers have already communicated any extra requests to the late keeper; however, before leaving the panda station to provide access, the phone is checked for any final instructions. For example, a langur may need a second dose of a medicine in the evening; a bucket with crayfish has been left for the otters as a final treat for the day; a sloth bear had a routine exam and the keeper wants a late check of the animal; misters for the cat species need to be shut off for the night. The keeper is often asked questions by guests, and the keeper must be able to answer them or radio elsewhere for a correct response.

Animal work is varied and can be unpredictable. The keeper must know how to access each exhibit, if needed, and which animal needs a food treat to lure back onto exhibit and which one doesn’t. We have many other tasks to accomplish, with varying frequency, throughout the day. For example, the nutritionist may stop by to discuss a potential diet increase for a growing panda or to help an older deer maintain weight; each panda is weighed at least once a week. Supplies must be obtained during a visit to the Zoo’s warehouse. It is a constant effort to keep the general area clean of cobwebs and leaf litter, and floors need to be scrubbed. Monthly safety meetings must be attended by everyone, and there is a monthly department meeting that is attended by those working that day. Periodic meetings with the rest of the Panda Team keep everyone informed.

Dirt is needed to fill in areas where erosion has occurred on steep hillsides or where repeated raking has occurred. Potted plants are watered until there’s time to plant them in an exhibit. A new shipment of sod is placed in exhibits for enrichment and aesthetics. A hoof trim is scheduled for a deer. A keeper does an interview with a film crew, especially when milestones occur, such as a panda’s birthday or the naming of a panda cub. The list goes on and on….

In short, a panda keeper’s day is full and varied, fitting in myriad tasks around the daily feeding schedule for the animals. It is also rewarding and just plain fun!

Karen Barnes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Panda Keeper Day, Part 2

Yun Zi has fun every day!

Be sure to read Panda Keeper’s Day.

Ideally, there are two keepers who start the morning shift at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station, but sometimes scheduling permits only one. The panda care team also has a late keeper, the shift varying throughout the year as daylight and the Zoo’s operating hours change. Currently, the late keeper arrives at 8:30 a.m. and may participate in the panda hearing study, which usually starts at 8:45.

During the panda hearing study, one keeper enters a large wooden box where a camera and sound equipment have been placed. The box is located at the end of a tunnel through which the pandas are moved. A researcher stands at a table just outside the box, monitoring the panda’s reactions to tones of different pitches. The panda is expected to rest its chin on a small platform, and then touch its nose to a round target when it hears a tone. The purpose of the study is to test the range of pitches that pandas can detect. This project was made possible by the keepers training the pandas to sit still at the chin rest and then to react to a tone.

As mentioned in my previous post, deer are also a part of the panda keeper’s responsibility. Currently, the species are western tufted deer and Siberian musk deer, housed in five different exhibits. The next priority is to service these animals. It takes one keeper nearly two hours to do the basic feeding and cleaning of these exhibits. If there is no time for additional tasks, such as providing fresh hay in their shelters, then the keeper can return later in the day. By the time the deer are serviced, it’s usually lunchtime for the early-shift keeper(s).

While one keeper is servicing the deer, the other one or two are cleaning the bedrooms to which the pandas had access overnight. Currently, we are collecting urine in Su Lin’s bedroom for hormone analysis of a maturing female. There are small holes drilled into the cement floor of the bedroom, surrounding the drain. These holes catch urine from the slight slope of the bedroom floor as the liquid moves toward the drain. Unfortunately for our purposes, she does not always urinate in the bedroom!

Preparing the pandas’ bamboo diets is the next priority. The pandas are fed three times each day. Their mid-day bamboo, evening bamboo, and the next day’s breakfast bamboo are prepared. Based on the recommendations of the Zoo’s nutritionists, each panda has a target weight range of bamboo for each feeding. The morning’s feeding is fairly heavy, because the pandas are hungry first thing. The mid-day feeding is the lightest because we want the pandas to shift later for cleaning and receipt of the last feeding, which is the heaviest because it must tide the bears over until the next morning. Each bamboo bundle contains at least three species of bamboo and is a mixture of leafy bamboo and sections of culm, the thick stems that contain a lot of starch for the bears. The completed bundles are stored in a large refrigerated cooler, along with the supply of harvested bamboo, from which the bundles are made. The bamboo is harvested by a hard-working colleague in the Horticulture Department, a full-time job!

Is Yun Zi supervising or preparing to pounce?

By this time, it is generally time for the mid-day feeding. Each bear is shifted off exhibit so that the keepers can remove feces and the morning’s bamboo and place new bamboo, biscuits, and produce. If the pond has been dirtied by the bear, it will be quickly flushed and refilled. As with the morning and later feedings, if the cub comes to the ground, he will be placed into the tunnel.

At this time, the keepers may do training with one or more of the pandas. For example, Su Lin and Zhen Zhen will be sent to China some day, and they must be habituated to their transport crate. This process includes closing the animal inside and making noise in the area and moving the crate around while observing the bear’s reaction. The process is a gradual one, so these manipulations become a normal part of the bear’s environment without undue stress. There may also be training for the hearing study. Zhen Zhen is new to the study and was often put through her paces before beginning actual data collection. Gao Gao has received some training toward the hearing study; Bai Yun was trained for the study, but needs some review, having not participated while she was busy raising Yun Zi. There are also routine behaviors that may be trained or reviewed, such as open mouth or sit or down or placing an arm into a metal sleeve in preparation for a blood draw.

Check back soon for Part 3 of a Panda Keeper’s Day!

Karen Barnes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Panda Keeper Day

Yun Zi starts his day even earlier than his keepers!

The alarm generally goes off at “oh-dark-hundred” in the morning, for most keepers at the San Diego Zoo begin their work day at 6 a.m. Upon arrival at work, one changes into a uniform and shoes that are used only on Zoo grounds. The Red Book, a daily diary recording relevant information, will be checked: the keeper is looking to see what extra tasks are occurring that day, such as a tour or work by Horticulture staff in an exhibit, or if something unusual occurred during their day off that they need to know about. Phone messages are checked for additional instructions or general information that the staff needs to know. Two different calendars are checked: one gives the time and location when panda observers will be collecting data; the other tells whether or not a panda hearing study is happening that day. These calendars help dictate when certain animals are fed.

All animals at the Zoo are to be checked by 7 a.m. each day. The panda keeper checks each of the pandas and also the deer that are housed in several different exhibits to be certain that the animals and exhibits are fine for the day.

The pandas are hungry in the morning: providing breakfast is a priority. The two that spend their days in what we call the classroom exhibits stay overnight in a large series of rooms, some covered, some open-air. For each classroom, the keeper delivers the food (bamboo and a small portion of biscuits, apples, carrots, and yams), flushes the drinker, fills the pool, puts out one or more enrichment items, and checks the area for anything that needs attention. Then, each panda is given access to their classroom for the day. Currently, Gao Gao, our panda sire, lives in one classroom while Zhen Zhen, one of his daughters, lives in the other.

Yun Zi regards the keepers as play objects.

One then moves down to the main viewing exhibits. In these areas, the bedrooms are relatively small, and the animal has access to both the exhibit and the bedroom. This means cleaning the exhibits of feces and leftover bamboo from the previous evening, then doing the tasks as listed for the classroom exhibits. Su Lin and Bai Yun move into their respective bedrooms while their exhibits are serviced. If Yun Zi, Bai Yun’s cub, remains up in one of the trees, we are able to clean the exhibit while he is present; however, he sometimes comes down from the tree and regards the keeper as a play object. This does not aid the clean-up effort, and he’s too big and strong for us to allow his attentions. So, when this happens, he is picked up and placed in a tunnel, to which Bai Yun is then given access. As he approaches 50 pounds (22 kilograms) in weight, there’s a lot to carry, and he sometimes reaches out to snag the door with his claws, thereby making the process more difficult, but these occasions do allow an opportunity to get a weight on him.

Check back soon for Part 2 of a Panda Keeper’s Day!

Karen Barnes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, All about Bamboo.


All about Bamboo

Bamboo. A grass, albeit one that looks like it’s on steroids. Giant panda food. An unwieldy food for keepers to prepare for pandas!

For new keepers to the panda area, the biggest learning curve is identifying the species of bamboo fed out to the pandas. There are some 20 species that tend to be available. That sounds like a lot of species to learn until one discovers there are over 1,200.

Even so, in the beginning many of the species look very similar to the untrained eye. One hears comments like, “Ventricosa has crazy-looking branches,” or “Aurea and bambusoides are hardest to tell apart. Bambusoides stems are larger in diameter.” So many details of which to become aware! Since the supply varies day to day, comparison between species may take some time to accomplish.

We feed our 4 pandas approximately 200 pounds (90 kilograms) of bamboo each day. (Yun Zi, our youngest cub, is still nursing and has barely begun to ingest anything other than milk.) That’s a lot of bamboo to supply each day, each week, each year. The bamboo is harvested by our horticultural experts. The usual guy has been dubbed “Johnny Bamboo.” He travels around the Zoo and Wild Animal Park harvesting bamboo for our pandas. It’s a huge job. And a vital one.

The nutritionists have supplied diets for the pandas, determining how much each will be offered at each of the three daily feedings. For example, Bai Yun, our lactating female, receives about 55 pounds (25 kilograms) each day. She receives a large helping first thing in the morning, a smaller serving at midday, and the most in the afternoon to last her overnight.

We have a very large walk-in cooler in which the bamboo is stored. As one enters the bamboo cooler, there are large racks along the back wall, each containing a species of bamboo, tied with twine. One then pulls samples from several different species in order to complete a bundle for a given feeding. The vertical stem of bamboo is called a culm. The pandas receive large sections of thick culm for the favored starchy material around the inside. In order to decrease tooth wear, we break open the culm for them. One always knows when bamboo diets are being made: the sound of culm sections being thrown onto the ground in order to split open can be heard by hopeful pandas as well as staff working in the area. The culm portion of the diet is supplemented by a large volume of leafy bamboo. The volume of most bundles is large. It becomes a challenge to wrap twine around the bundle in such a way that the bundle can easily be carried and not have the smoother, thick culm sections fall out. The weight of each species is noted as well as the total weight of each bundle for each feeding.

When each exhibit is cleaned, the large, leftover bamboo pieces are gathered together and tied into a bundle. The smaller pieces are raked into a trash bag. The bundle of new bamboo is then placed on exhibit or inside a bedroom, depending on the location and time of day. The bamboo leftovers are then weighed and those numbers are recorded.

Thus, for panda keepers, there is a lot of repetition over the course of the day as three feedings are cleaned and weighed and new bamboo made available. However, these efforts are certainly worthwhile in order to care for these unique, charismatic animals!

Some bamboo facts

Bamboo is a versatile plant, used as food for people and animals, timber, paper pulp, musical instruments, toys, fabrics, medicines. It may prevent landslides or the collapse of riverbanks where there are erosion problems or during an earthquake. It is stronger than wood in tension or compression, and yet one can easily cut through the culm. During an atomic bomb blast, bamboo survived the radiation while the incinerating heat destroyed trees and wooden structures.

Bamboo species generally have one of two growing habits: running or clumped. This division is based on whether the underground stems, called rhizomes, grow far from the parent stem prior to sending up more stems above the ground. The bamboo culm (stem) is usually hollow, with solid areas at the ends of each segment (node).

Bamboo lacks the cambium layer found in many plants such as trees. Without this layer, the bamboo doesn’t grow in diameter over time, as a typical tree would.

During the growing season, temperate bamboo species grow the most during the day, while tropical bamboos grow more overnight. One species of timber bamboo can grow as much as 4 feet in a 24-hour period. In some species, branches develop while the culm is till growing in height. In others, branches develop only after the culm attains its full height.

Some species of bamboo flower at long intervals. The range can vary every 4 to 120 years, depending on the species. If one takes a seed or part of a culm stock and grows it elsewhere in the world, it will flower at the same time as the parent plant, regardless of geographical location, climatic conditions, soil differences, or age of clump.

Karen Barnes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Food: The Great Motivator

Yun Zi rolls in sawdust

Yun Zi rolls in sawdust

Yun Zi continues to grow and thrive. In my previous post (see New Kids on the Block), I mentioned that the pandas receive small amounts of yam and carrot and apple as tasty treats. Yun Zi has not started eating apples; he likes the smell of them and will mouth them, as he does other plant material, but he lets them fall out of his mouth. The fact that he likes the smell has been useful. We try to coax him to move between areas, and smelling a piece of apple sometimes stimulates his interest in moving forward. Interestingly, carrots and yams don’t get the same response!

Our little guy has shown no special affinity for any one keeper at this time. Frankly, we have little to offer a panda cub, other than as an occasional object of their play behavior. Mom provides food and care. Right now we just want the cub to be familiar with us and let us touch him when needed. Once a panda cub starts to wean, keepers can build a better rapport, as the animal looks to us for food. As food is provided, so are opportunities for training. Trained behaviors for management or research purposes build trust and relationships between animals and keepers. Because the training process generally starts with one person working each new behavior, this is a time when rapport may be strengthened. Time and progress create positive and stimulating interactions for keeper and panda alike.

We often mention the need to move a panda from one room/exhibit to another. The San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station has grown over time. Bedroom areas vary in size and configuration. A connecting tunnel also helps to provide numerous options in managing this species. This tunnel has thick wire mesh that extends along all of the bedroom areas. There are solid barriers that can be slid into the tunnel and secured, if needed. This can be helpful for allowing a panda partial tunnel access for variety or to be weighed on a scale within the tunnel or to move an animal from one part of the Research Station to another.

Two of the bedrooms have an attached den. Bedrooms are fully enclosed, with solid walls and glassed windows, behind a thick wire mesh. They offer a raised platform, which may include a built-in scale. Other areas, called sunrooms, have a solid floor but partially opened sides and tops consisting of thick wire mesh. Other areas, called garden rooms, are also partially-open on the sides and above, have a natural substrate, which may include grass, a sleeping platform, and perhaps a climbing structure. Shade options are present for open-topped areas.

I hope this information helps our Panda Cam viewers!

Karen Barnes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


New Kids on the Block

panda_yz_1-12-10eThe first time I saw Yun Zi, the San Diego Zoo’s newest panda cub, it happened to be the first time he was let onto exhibit. Bai Yun, his mom, was sitting near the entry gate, munching on bamboo. The cub was in the tunnel, just inside the door, and was very unsure about what to do.

Yun Zi had to navigate a raised cement lip before entering the exhibit. He would place one to three paws onto the lip, and perhaps start to slip out into the exhibit, but then back away into the tunnel. Bai Yun came to check on him now and then. Eventually, she returned to him, picked him up by the scruff of his neck, and gently slung him out onto the exhibit. He quickly returned into the tunnel, but eventually made it outside on his own.

There was a low log on the ground, close to the entry door. The cub proceeded to climb onto it, teeter briefly, and then topple onto the ground, often rolling onto his back. Since cubs are so very roly-poly in shape, it might take him a little time to right himself and repeat the process. After a while, he tired of this game, crept into the bushes, and fell asleep.

A week or so later, I saw him in the same area. I was impressed by how quickly he’d gained physical strength and coordination and how high he was able to climb.

Soon afterward, I became the most recent addition to the panda keeper team. As the new kid on the block, I was able to see more of the new cub on the block, as well as learn about the care of this charismatic species.

The pandas are fed three times each day. The bulk of their diet is bamboo. They also receive a small amount of commercially-prepared biscuits for extra nutrients, as well as a small amount of yam and carrot and apple, all tasty treats to use to help shift and train the pandas.

The bears are shifted into bedrooms while their exhibit is cleaned and fresh food is set out for them. Between feedings, the bedrooms are cleaned and bamboo bundles are assembled. I’m slowly learning to identify about 20 species of bamboo to offer the pandas. Our horticultural experts harvest bamboo from a variety of sources and deliver it to a large, walk-in cooler for storage. Each bamboo bundle is weighed, and any leftovers are also weighed in order to track the pandas’ appetites.

In the afternoon, Bai Yun and the cub are brought off exhibit for the night. Bai Yun shifts readily, eager for her final feeding of the day. Currently, Yun Zi seldom follows her inside. He may be playing or sleeping in the climbing structure or even in the moat. Fortunately, he is young enough to be picked up from wherever he is and brought to the tunnel. However, he’s growing fast and may squirm a lot while being carried. At some point, our panda-wrangling days will need to come to an end.

Karen Barnes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Meet the Snow Leopards.


Meet the Snow Leopards



I chuckled as I arrived at the snow leopard exhibit along the Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo during my first check of the day. Everett was on his side on a rock at the front of the exhibit, Anna was sitting on him: an example of the bond between these two.

Everett and Anna came to the Zoo in the spring of 2006. Everett is 12 years old, Anna is 6. You can easily tell them apart: Everett is larger and his left eye appears slightly enlarged and seems to view the world from a different angle than the right one. Anna has a kink in her tail about six inches from the end.

In the wild, adults lead solitary lives. However, Everett and Anna live together quite happily. In fact, they are so well bonded, they become nervous if separated for a long time. The other paired cats along the Big Cat Trail must be separated to be fed in order to reduce competition. However, the snows will eat peacefully side by side, each pausing now and then to lick the other’s head. I should add that this goes for their basic carnivore diet: a ground-beef diet with extra nutrients specially formulated for zoo carnivores. When they are given their whole-food items, like a beef shank or rack of ribs, these items are placed at opposite ends of the bedrooms. Upon separation and release from each end of the bedrooms, each cat retires to a distant location with its treat.

As one would expect of an animal native to a harsh climate, they are seasonal breeders. Since their arrival, they have bred many times. Unfortunately, no cubs have resulted. It is possible that Everett is too old. Older snow leopard males in managed care have a poor track record when it comes to siring young. We will report back to the snow leopard Species Survival Plan (SSP), which manages snow leopards across North America using complex computer programs to rank individuals genetically and makes breeding recommendations.

As I care for the different species in my care, I am interested to learn about their different mind-sets and behaviors. For example, the cougars seem very quick in both their movements and thinking; one can almost see the wheels turning. But the snows seem less engaged in their environment, somehow: quieter, gentler, more passive.

I’m told that Anna was very shy and nervous when she first arrived but has calmed greatly. Even so, she can be reluctant to shift off exhibit, often appearing to wait for Everett to shift first. And yet she’ll go through periods when she is first to leap into the bedrooms while Everett hangs back. In general, she is more food motivated than he is.

Everett sometimes makes an earnest-sounding vocalization, but one doesn’t know what it is he wants. He enjoys tactile enrichment, though, and sometimes rubs his head against the enclosure’s wire. He will then remain still while his head is scratched with a back scratcher. When Anna cycled, Everett often had little appetite; this enabled her to monopolize the whole-food items on exhibit. Sometimes, I’d give these items in the bedrooms while they were separated. One day, as I was releasing Everett, I noticed he had the remains of food on his chin. Perhaps there are other reasons why the breeding hasn’t gone so well…?

They are less interactive with toys provided for enrichment. However, scents generally result in a strong reaction, especially from Everett. We grow fresh herbs on Zoo grounds to be used as enrichment, as well as using spices or colognes. Even a handful of fresh hay will produce a strong reaction. One day I placed hay into a large plastic bowl. Everett did a face plant into the bowl, sniffing, rubbing his head, and even nibbling the hay. He lifted his head with a small pile of hay on top with a blissful look on his face.

These cats are one of my favorites. Stop by their exhibit and enjoy these beautiful and enigmatic carnivores.

Karen Barnes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Favorite Jaguar Moments.


Favorite Jaguar Moments

I am privileged to work the exhibits in Cat Canyon. Each species has its own mind set; its own management challenges, its own beauty. Each individual, its own personality.

We have two jaguars. Orson, a magnificent black jaguar, and Nindiri, a small female with the more normal coat pattern of black spots on a golden coat. They are placed on exhibit, one at a time, during the day. Each seems to enjoy their time on exhibit and the admiration of guests and staff alike. When I think of them, several moments come to mind:

– I love Orson’s glossy, black coat. If you look closely when the sun shines on his coat you’ll see that he has black spots, it’s just that his are against a black background. He is a gorgeous combination of power and beauty. Awesome is an over-used word these days, but it truly describes Orson.

– Orson’s eyes have a green hue.

– During the warmer months, Orson was often draped over the forked branch at the front of his exhibit when I walked by at the morning’s check. This is a very jaguar thing to do.

– Nindiri drapes herself across the forked branches, but not well. One would think her smaller size would make it easier for her. However, she seems uncertain where to put her belly and can be seen frequently adjusting her balance. This is a recent behavior for her. She doesn’t stay there long, possibly because it’s not a comfy position for her. Perhaps she’ll get better with time?

– In the afternoon, with dappled sunlight filtering into the exhibit, Orson often rests on his back, right at the front of the exhibit, watching the guests from an upside-down vantage point.

– Seeing Nindiri resting on the bench on exhibit, her energy stilled for the time being. She looks content.

– Nindiri’s efforts to drag a large bowl out of the pond are always impressive. The bowl is almost as big as she is, but her determination overcomes obstacles as she moves it around the exhibit.

– I enjoy watching their tails. They look like they’ve got a separate brain in their tail tip. The tail tip is often moving, seemingly independent from whatever the cat is doing.

Stop by our jaguar exhibit and find your own favorite moments.

Karen Barnes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous blog, A Jaguar’s Day.

Jaguars are the featured animal in the January issue of ZOONOOZ, our member magazine. For video and a photo slide show of Orson and Nindiri, visit our ZOONOOZ page.


Day of a Jaguar

Nindiri, the San Diego Zoo’s young female jaguar, spends most of her time in an enclosure behind the main jaguar exhibit in Cat Canyon (see Karen’s previous blog, Jaguars: Meet Nindiri). However, she is often visible beyond the back right corner of the main exhibit.

When she first arrived at the Zoo, she often spent the night in a large, open box, bedded with hay and located at the upper corner of her enclosure. Now that the weather is cooler, she sleeps in a double-walled “dogloo,” which is heavily bedded with hay. At the first check of the day, she knows food is not offered, and she tends to sleep in, so I must approach the sunroom where the dogloo is kept and peer into the dark interior, while a sleepy-eyed cat peers back.

Later in the morning, I return to service the area and rotate Nindiri onto exhibit for part of the day. By this time, she is up and active and very ready for breakfast. I give her a portion of her food in order to take the edge off her never-ending appetite. Despite her eagerness for food, she is a slow eater, and it takes her many seconds to consume even a smallish meatball.

Nindiri is always eager to shift onto the exhibit, but I must also shift our gorgeous, black jaguar, Orson, off exhibit and service (clean and prepare) the exhibit before releasing her into it. A cardboard box placed in the sunroom provides a good distraction for her energies. A training session provides more of her daily diet, another outlet for her energy and mental stimulation.

While we house two jaguars in close proximity, they are never put together. Adult jaguars are solitary in the wild, and Nindiri and Orson are not recommended for breeding, according to the Jaguar Species Survival Plan, which manages jaguars in captivity across North America. This requires a carefully choreographed rotation so the two cannot come into contact.

Behind the back wall of the jaguar exhibit are four bedrooms and a small alcove leading to the exhibit door on the back left-hand side of the exhibit. The sunroom, a small area, has doors leading into the alcove and into the back area, called the garden room, where Nindiri spends most of her time. Orson moves off exhibit into the bedrooms via a door toward the right-hand side of the exhibit and remains in rooms two and three, so there is always a buffer room between the cats. Once the exhibit is serviced, Nindiri is shifted through the alcove and onto exhibit. Orson is then shifted into the garden room until the rotation is reversed later in the day.

Nindiri knows that something will have changed in the exhibit and she quickly explores the area. Usually, she’ll start with a meatball hunt, searching for the small meatballs that were left in different locations each day. Enrichment options are frequently changed, to provide novelty for the animals. If the large, plastic bowl is in the exhibit pond, that is often her next stop. She pulls the bowl out of the pond and around the exhibit; we assume this is a demonstration of the jaguar’s tendency to cache food in the wild. She doesn’t try to take the bowl up into a tree, but often leaves it in the cave. Because Orson has recently exited the exhibit, she will also be experiencing his odors—another enrichment option for both of them. Once she has exhausted the options, she often rests on the lower bench on the right-hand side of the exhibit, or on the flat area just below, watching the world go by.

Late morning or early afternoon, she is shifted into the bedrooms where she will find a snack to keep her busy while Orson is returned to the exhibit. Once she is released into the sunroom and garden room, she may also have another training session with the last of her food. New enrichment options may have been placed in these back areas, so she has something else to do or explore.

And so another day is done.

Karen Barnes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.