About Author: Kathy Hawk

Posts by Kathy Hawk


Party Plans for Bai Yun

Little does Bai Yun know what awaits her!

Little does Bai Yun know what awaits her!

It is just around the corner! On Saturday, September 7, 2013, we will celebrate giant panda Bai Yun’s 22nd birthday! Many of you might remember that last year, on Bai’s big “21,” we were not able to give her a birthday bash as she was nestled away in her bedroom suites taking care of Baby #6, our Xiao Liwu.

We decided this year that we needed to make up for last year and give Bai a big birthday party! Our forage warehouse staff, famous for making our incredible ice cakes, is already hard at work making our girl a very special one. I know what it is going to look like, and I can tell you that the cake will be stupendous!

Steamed, mashed yams are piped onto an ice layer for a decorative touch.

Steamed, mashed yams are piped onto an ice layer for a decorative touch.

As I look back on when Bai arrived here at the San Diego Zoo on September 10, 1996, she was a five-year-old full of wonder and energy. Today, after six cubs, Miss Bai still has “it,” and she continues to delight our guests, especially when she and Mr. Wu decide to have a play bout!

We have learned so much from her over the years. I can proudly say Bai Yun truly is our ambassador for giant panda conservation at the San Diego Zoo. I hope many of you will be able to come to the Zoo’s Panda Trek and help us celebrate our beautiful Bai’s 22nd birthday. The cake will be set out around 8:30 a.m. and the birthday girl and her cub will be out to see it starting at 8:45 a.m. for Panda Cam viewers. It will certainly be a festive event!

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Pandas: The Transition.


Pandas: The Transition

Xiao Liwu rests against his pillow as he plays Big Boy Panda with bamboo.

Xiao Liwu rests against his pillow as he plays Big Boy Panda with bamboo.

Giant panda Bai Yun and her now 8-month-old cub, Xiao Liwu, are slowly making the transition to their new enclosure in the main viewing area of the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Trek. The restless behaviors you may have seen from Bai Yun are absolutely normal during this transition period. We keepers are aware of how the changes can affect the bears, because I’ve seen Bai Yun go through this with EACH of her cubs.

For Bai Yun, the space is not new to her, as she has lived in this enclosure for many years. However, she has a new cub to care for now, and the scent of the previous resident, Gao Gao, is still strong in that enclosure. Although Gao Gao has been her mate and is the father of this cub, that matters not at all to her. In her mind, a male is in the area, and it could mean danger for her cub. As his scent dissipates, she will settle down.

For Mr. Wu, everything is new! The main viewing enclosures give our guests a closer look at the pandas, but they are also closer to the road, so there are new sounds to get used to. The cub’s new space is about the same size as his previous one, but it is shaped differently: it is longer and not as deep. There are lots of new things for the little guy to explore, and taller trees to climb! Cubs at this age do spend a LOT of time in the tallest tree they can find; in the wild, this makes good survival sense, as they would be safe from predators while Mom foraged. Xiao Liwu doesn’t have to worry about those predators here, but the instinct to climb is still strong.

As keepers, we continue to take steps to ease this transition time. We make sure we offer bamboo that is to Bai Yun’s liking whenever possible, we add various enrichment items with each feeding, and we continue to keep the access to her bedroom open, so mother and cub can retreat off exhibit any time they want to do so. Please be patient, this phase of unrest will soon pass!

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Happy 21st Birthday, Bai Yun

Our birthday girl relaxes on her special day.

Happy 21st birthday to our panda mom, Bai Yun! It is hard to believe that 16 years ago, this beautiful, grand lady arrived at the San Diego Zoo as a curious, playful youngster, only to grow up and become one of the most popular pandas in the U.S.!

Bai is truly an ambassador for giant pandas. Since her arrival in 1996, we have learned so much from her about giant panda biology. As a result of this, she has raised worldwide public awareness on the plight of giant pandas in her home country of China.

Miss Bai has always been on the “cutting edge” of things. She has presented us with six beautiful cubs, making the San Diego Zoo the first in the U.S. and outside of China to produce the largest number of giant panda births! In addition, Bai almost broke the world record as being one of the oldest females to give birth in a managed-care facility. So many wonderful memories over the years, and yes, you guessed it, Bai is my number one panda!

For a birthday gift, Bai will be offered access to her garden room, after spending many months in her bedroom and den area. Here she can have more quiet and “personal” time away, but not too far, from her son. She can enjoy resting on her favorite platform, if she desires. We thought this was a fitting present to give our busy mom!

Happy birthday, Bai Yun, from your keepers and admirers. You are still as beautiful as ever, and we look forward to the future as we watch your new son grow!

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Wins Best Mom Title.


Panda Wins Best Mom Title

Bai Yun enjoys some aromatherapy!

A few months ago, in honor of Mother’s Day, San Diego Zoo Global thought it would be fun to have a poll on our Facebook page, giving Facebook “friends” a chance to vote for their favorite Zoo or Safari Park animal mom. There were four animal mothers to choose from: koala Yabber, tiger Delta, hippo Funani, and giant panda Bai Yun. The prize was money to be used for enrichment for the winning mom.

Well, you all have cast your votes, and I am happy to say Bai Yun won hands down!

We keepers decided to spend the prize money to purchase an array of essential oils for Bai to use for enrichment. Bai has always been olfactory oriented, and in the past she has enjoyed unique scents to investigate.

A few weeks ago, we set up her exhibit and decided to let her choose which scent she liked the best. We put the scents on two Boomer ball toys; one scent was ylang ylang, the other was cinnamon oil. Our Zoo photographer was on hand to get some pictures of our girl enjoying her aromatherapy gifts!

The exhibit door opened, and Bai went straight for the enrichment items, totally ignoring her bamboo. Her choice of scent? She LOVED the ylang ylang. Our panda mother picked up the scented toy and was seen rolling on it and rubbing her face all over it. In the end, she smelled very fragrant!

Bai was very generous and let her son, Yun Zi, and daddy Gao Gao share her gifts. They both loved the cinnamon oil scent, and both chose to interact with the scented toys first and not eat bamboo!

As keepers, it is very rewarding to watch our animals enjoy enrichment items, and the numerous essential oils we were able to purchase will be greatly cherished by our pandas! Thank you all for your votes for our beautiful mom, Bai Yun. I know she will enjoy her aromatherapy “spa days” enrichment! We have lots of scents to choose from!

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Thank You, Panda Fans!


Thank You, Panda Fans!

Yun Zi and Bai Yun enjoy their remodeled digs.

Friday’s reopening of our giant panda exhibits was a huge success! It was so nice to see Bai Yun, Yun Zi, and even Gao Gao exploring their new areas.  Gao surprised us with his climbing skills: he really seemed to enjoy the new furniture!

Bai and Yun Zi were hysterical; we put out some loamex mulch in their cave, and they had so much fun rolling in the pile and getting very dirty! But that was not all: they entertained us by playing on the new climbing logs and exploring the new plants. I held my breath thinking little Yun Zi was going to go on a plant attack!

As a keeper, it is so rewarding to be able to take a exhibit space and turn it into a wonderful, enriching environment for the animals in our care. This all could not be possible without the generous donations of our panda fans through the Zoo’s Animal Care Wish List. The monies you contributed helped pay for the rental of the crane to set the new climbing logs in place, new plants, two new shade trees, and beautiful green sod.

I did want to mention it was a team effort working for almost three weeks getting our exhibits ready for the public. With this is mind, I want to thank our horticulture, and construction and maintenance departments, and sun bear and nursery keepers; they all pitched in to make our exhibits beautiful.

Remodeling our exhibits was truly a labor of love for our black-and-white kids. On behalf of all of our Zoo staff, we cannot thank you enough for your donations!  Please stop by our exhibits and enjoy seeing our pandas in their new exhibits. You helped make this happen!

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Bai Yun through the Years.

Watch video of the re-opening day!


Bai Yun through the Years

Happy 19th birthday, Bai Yun!

I remember that special day in the fall of 1996: the dream had finally happened, the San Diego Zoo had giant pandas! I had little sleep the night before our black-and-white celebrities arrived. I stayed late at the Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station, disinfecting bedrooms and getting things ready for our new kids. Bai was the first panda I saw in the shipping crate when she and Shi Shi arrived. As the back door of the delivery truck opened, there she was, looking curiously at me. I was in awe!

Bai checks out her new home at the San Diego Zoo, October 11, 1996.

As the days rolled into months, Bai and I became fast friends. I would spend my lunch breaks with her:she would be in the off-exhibit backyards, and I would be on the outside of the separation fence. Bai was five years old at the time and very much the comical youngster. We would interact through the fence line, and it was funny, as it seemed she would imitate everything I did! If I ran along the fence line, she would run; if I did a somersault, or bounce on all fours, Bai was with me every step of the way. Thank goodness we were behind the scenes, as someone might think the keeper has lost her mind!

Bai knows how to play! April 1997.

Bai and I have shared many events together. I remember during the early years of breeding season, male Shi Shi repeatedly rejected Bai’s friendly advances. Our Panda Team decided to precede with our alternate plan, and Bai was artificially inseminated; this procedure eventually produced our first cub, Hua Mei.

I was there the day Bai gave birth to Hua Mei. At that time, some people were skeptical about whether Bai would make a good mother. I had no doubts, as I knew her that well; she would know what to do and care for her cub. Bai has now proven herself to be an excellent mother five times to date!

Who needs a hammock? September 2001

Another story that comes to mind is when our vet staff asked us if there was a possibility we could train Bai to do ultrasound procedures. In three days, Bai learned to lie down in a squeeze cage when asked, and within a few weeks we were obtaining ultrasound pictures! How did Bai learn this behavior? Well, she imitated me while she was sitting in the cage: I laid down next to the cage, and my silly girl thought this was a new game to play! I captured this behavior using a clicker and a food reward after she did the behavior. Bai never ceases to amaze me. Since the early years, our veterinarians have been able to document the development of a growing panda fetus up to the day before birth!

Bai checks out an interesting scent, June 2003.

As I look back on the early years to the present, I still am in awe over Bai Yun. She has taught us so much about giant panda biology. Through her, researchers have been able to utilize this knowledge in efforts to better understand giant pandas in the wild and how we can protect and preserve giant panda habitats in China. Our Bai is truly the matriarch of our conservation research program here at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station.

Today, September 7, our grand lady is 19 years old. She is still just as beautiful as the day she arrived in 1996, a bright-eyed beauty who still captures the hearts of everyone who sees her at the Zoo and on our Panda Cam.

Happy Birthday, “Miss B”! Thank you for all you have done for us in the name of giant panda conservation, your five beautiful cubs, and for me personally. I am honored to be your keeper.

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read Kathy’s previous post, Panda 1st Grade.


Panda 1st Grade

We have no formal training going on with nine-month-old Yun Zi right now, only brief moments of behavior conditioning (see post Panda Kindergarten). As he gets older and wants to play more, we keepers become an object of his play bouts. However, this will not be desirable as he gets bigger and stronger, for obvious reasons! So when he is down out of the trees, we try to redirect his behavior to something else, like giving him an enrichment toy, bamboo, or even an apple slice so to discourage his wanting to play with the keepers.

Our next goal is trying to get him to shift into the bedroom with Bai while we clean the exhibit. Since food is always a powerful tool for training, this works well for our adult pandas; they come off exhibit, and treats are their reward. But for a cub that is still not really eating solid foods yet, this can be challenging. So, we will wait until he is older for that. However, we do take advantage of opportunistic times when Yun Zi is near the bedroom and we call him and his mother in; if he comes in with Bai Yun, we try to give him something for a reward: a piece of bamboo to play with or a toy, something for his efforts.

In time, Yun Zi will come to understand that keepers do not make good toys and that it is highly rewarding to come into the bedroom when asked to do so!

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Panda Kindergarten

panda_exam12Now that Yun Zi has his official name, what’s ahead for our boy? Currently he is taking “baby steps,” crawling and walking out of the den, either by himself or with the “help” of Bai Yun. As with every panda cub born here at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station, it is very important that the keepers establish a strong bond with the little ones. Yun Zi is at a perfect age to begin socialization training. He can see, smell, and hear, and is beginning to walk and make attempts to explore the world outside of his den.

For keepers, the first stage of “class” begins with us just hanging outside the den and having a chat with him. Of course, Bai Yun is out in the off-exhibit area happily eating, and we do have a door separating us from her during these sessions. In this phase, we want Yun Zi to get familiar with our voices and smells while staying in the security of his den. We don’t pull him out of the den (exams are the exception) during this stage, but would rather he come to us to “check us out.” It is very important that we create a positive environment in our encounters with him. Eventually it will pay off when he makes the choice to come to us and is not forced.

Another phase of panda cub school is to get him used to coming and going from the exhibit to his bedroom. Bai is just now starting to drag him out to the transfer tunnel area. On occasion, she leaves him in the tunnel while she goes out to the exhibit to eat bamboo. We take this opportunity to interact with him; we go into the tunnel area and show him the way back to his bedroom. From my experiences with four other panda cubs, this stage is quickly learned. Knowing where his bedroom is can come in handy for Yun Zi when Bai is moving too fast and he finds himself alone in the tunnel. We try to familiarize him with his new world of transfer tunnels, going out to the exhibit, and coming off exhibit at the end of the day. All of these things are basic panda management that he will learn during his “kindergarten” days. Bai Yun is very comfortable with these sessions, as she has a strong bond of trust with her keepers. It really helps make the job so much easier!

As Yun Zi matures, he will be able to follow his mother back and forth from the exhibit to the bedroom on a daily basis. At this point, Bai will take over as teacher, but the keepers will still interact with Yun Zi to keep the bond going. We have a great track record with our panda cubs over the years. As the bond between cub and keeper grows, the cub becomes more secure and confident and will be able to deal with the day-to-day life at our Panda Station. When the weaning process begins, the separation from mother is easier due to the already established bond the youngsters have with their keepers. From then on, we become their world.

Yun Zi, like his brother and sisters before him, will pass the kindergarten phase with flying colors. What will his graduation present be? Well, his adoring fans will get to see a happy, secure little panda cub romping about his new exhibit, already prepared for his debut, and then there will be no stopping him!

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Celebrate Bai Yun

panda_bai_06Today, September 7, our giant panda matriarch Bai Yun is 18 years old! It’s hard to believe that in September 1996, this beautiful youngster made her debut in San Diego. Between her and adult male Shi Shi, they literally won the hearts of people all over the world! Born in China in 1991 at the Wolong Giant Panda Center, she was Wolong’s first captive-born panda! Her name in Chinese means “white cloud.”

Bai Yun with her firstborn, Hua Mei.

Bai Yun with her firstborn, Hua Mei.

Over the past 13 years, Bai has contributed greatly to the San Diego Zoo’s giant panda research program. We have learned many aspects of panda husbandry, including how to monitor panda estrus cycles, in-depth looks at the development of a giant panda fetus through ultrasound, and experiencing the birth of her first cub, Hua Mei. Everything we have asked of her she has given us because of the strong trusting bond she has with her keepers. She is truly a remarkable panda!

Bai Yun on her first day in her new exhibit, 1996.

Bai Yun on her first day in her new exhibit, 1996.

I have watched this girl grow up since 1996, and even now, as she turns 18, she still is beautiful, and there are moments when her “young, prankish” side comes out! I remember in the early days sitting down in the panda yards on my breaks and hanging out with her. Bai was always good for a conversation or two! Then afterward, she would make me laugh with her playful antics, rolling around, doing somersaults, and then looking over at me just to make sure I was paying attention!

So today we celebrate her birthday. We can’t give her an ice birthday cake, as she is busy being Mom to her cub #5. So, happy birthday, Bai Yun! Thank you for all you have given us. You have become a very important ambassador for your species, raising awareness of giant pandas and adding hope for panda conservation in China. We honor you on your special day!

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Baby’s First Exam

panda_cub_exam_9-3-09This morning, around 8, we did our first panda cub exam. Everything went very well! Bai Yun was very calm and ate during the entire exam. It was pretty challenging, trying to crawl into the den and get the cub. Bai had done an extremely good job of threading/weaving bamboo to make a nest! See video!

Kathy gently holds the little one.

Kathy gently holds the little one.

We were very fortunate that the little one had a nursing bout before the exam. This really helps settle the cub, and believe me, this one was very CALM about the whole process! The cub, who is 29 days old, weighed in at 1,259 grams (2.8 pounds), nice and chubby, and was 14.7 inches (37 centimeters) long. Our veterinarian, Dr. Jeff Pye, performed the exam and also took some measurements.
Our baby was pronounced very healthy and was already trying to do some head lifts on the exam table!

When the five-minute exam was finished, I put baby back into the den, and Bai was reunited with her cub. Bai very calmly picked baby up and rested. I have to say this was one of our best first exams on a cub: baby did not cry and Bai was not stressed.

I am sure by now you are all wringing your hands as to what the sex is. I saved the best part for last! Our fifth baby panda is…A BOY!

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

More photos

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This post has received a large volume of comments recently expressing various opinions about Panda Cam’s new format. Your voices have been heard! But for now we ask that future comments sent to this post be related to the topic of pandas, please, and not about the changes to the Panda Cam page. Thank you all for your understanding.