Animal Care Wish List


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.


Wish List: Enrichment for All

Carnivores like this Arctic wolf love to investigate new scents.

Carnivores like this Arctic wolf often roll in “smelly” stuff to hide their own scent.

At the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we are always trying to make sure that our animals are offered the best care possible. Through the years I have been fortunate to work in different areas and with several different animals. Though each animal is different and may need different types of care, one thing is always constant at the Zoo and Safari Park: enrichment.

When you come to the Zoo or Safari Park, you may see animals playing with something that looks like a toy, digging under a log, or even rolling in mulch. What may look like the animal just playing is actually a skill or behavior that the animals may naturally exhibit. For keepers, one of the fun parts of the job is getting to be creative with enrichment. Where can they hide the food? What can they use to cover a smell or scent mark? What can the animal maneuver and break apart?

Zoos and other managed-care facilities use enrichment to ensure that their animals stay active and engaged. When animals are in the wild, they are constantly challenged to obtain food and water, stay safe, and watch out for the competition. We may try to challenge our animals in every category except for water, of course. For many animals that have predatory instincts, hiding food around their enclosure helps them “exercise” their sense of smell and problem-solving skills. Many predators have calculating minds that are challenged on a daily basis in the wild, so we may have meatball hunts or puzzle feeders where the animal has to move a feeder around to get the food out.

Animals that may not hunt but do struggle to find food out in the wild are also given puzzle feeders and sometimes other challenges. For example: we may take a burlap sack, fill it with hay, bury treats in there, and spray perfume on the sack to hide the scent of the food. This gives the animals something safe to take apart and play with as they also problem solve to find their food.

One of our favorite enrichment items to use is perfume! We use it with many of our mammals for many reasons. Carnivores like to roll in something smelly so they can cover up their smell to sneak up on prey. For wolves, this behavior is also a way to communicate to the rest of their pack that they may have found a carcass that they can feed on. Something similar in purpose is hair from other animals, especially camels, for animals that need to hide a newborn from predators. Every year when the camels begin shedding their winter coats, we begin giving the shed to our large cats. They usually roll around in it, covering themselves with a new scent; for our guests visiting that day, it allows them to get some awesome photos of our animals being animals.

Keepers are given the chance to put items on a wish list that is then posted on the San Diego Zoo’s website. Our guests, members, and patrons from around the world are able to donate toward a particular enrichment item for any animal, if they wish. We were able to fund the construction of an artificial tree for one of our panda enclosures this way, and many of our animals have benefited through our Animal Care Wish List.

We hope everyone has a great holiday season. Stop by to check out our animals soon, and see if you can tell what type of enrichment they may have that day!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Long Time, No See Bears.


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.


Planning a Panda Snow Day

Remember Xiao Liwu's first snow day back in March?

Remember Xiao Liwu’s first snow day back in March?

On Thursday, August 29, our beloved pandas at the San Diego Zoo will receive approximately 30,000 pounds (13,600 kilograms) of snow as part of a special enrichment surprise. Starting around 6 a.m. on Thursday, Arctic Ice Company will begin the process of blowing snow into the two main viewing exhibits.

The three pandas receiving snow are one-year-old cub Xiao Liwu and his mother, Bai Yun, who will enjoy the snow together, and the cub’s older brother, four-year-old Yun Zi, who will be exploring the snow in his exhibit. (Of course, this plan is subject to change if the little stinker—er, cub—doesn’t cooperate by shifting off exhibit when asked!) This will be Xiao Liwu’s second snow day (see Panda Cub Gets Cold Feet), and we are eager to see how the cub will react to his snowy exhibit this time. For his first snow day, Xiao Liwu was a little hesitant, but once he saw Mom enjoying the snow, he jumped in and playfully wrestled with her until he tired himself out.

These special snow-day enrichments would not be possible without our generous donors. A private donor event will be held before the exhibit opens to the public to give thanks to many of the donors who contributed to the Zoo’s online Animal Care Wish List. The Wish List is like an online gift registry for animals at the Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park and can be found at sandiegozoo.org/wishlist.

The panda exhibit will be open at 9 a.m. as usual for guests to come see the panda snow day. For panda fans who aren’t able to see the bears in person, Panda Cam will be available for online viewing of snow day starting at 8 a.m., or fans can check out the Zoo’s social media channels for updates, photos, and video:

Facebook: www.facebook.com/sandiegozoo
Twitter: www.twitter.com/sandiegozoo
YouTube: www.youtube.com/sdzoo

Ina Saliklis is a public relations representative for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: Exam 15.


Help Our Pandas Celebrate

More birthday fun is planned for Yun Zi and his fans this weekend!

As keepers, we work really hard all day to take care of our animals. On special occasions, we work extra hard to make a day or weekend special for our pandas. Yun Zi turns three just once (August 5), but we think it’s only fair that he celebrates all his siblings’ birthdays as well. On Saturday and Sunday he is going to get special present boxes and/or ice treats. This will all lead up to another World-famous Ice Cake on Sunday, August 5 (about 9 a.m.). Plus, this year he gets to enjoy enrichment gifts made by some of his favorite fans during the Zoo’s annual Black & White Overnight; we’ll have the campers wave to the Panda Cam viewers about 8:45 a.m.

There are many ways you, too, can help Yun Zi and his bear friends celebrate: just check out the Zoo’s Animal Care Wish List. It includes everything a bear could want to help make his or her life even better!

Another wonderful way to help our black-and-white friends is by stopping by our special booth during Adopt a Panda Week at the Zoo, August 4 to 12. Adoptions start at just $15. The adoption package includes a panda adoption certificate, panda fact sheet, panda photo, and a panda plush. During Adopt a Panda Week, our booth will be set up at Panda Trek where you can meet with our adoption experts. If you can’t visit the Zoo that day, you can still adopt a panda (or other animals) online, starting at $35. Either way, all adoption proceeds go toward animal conservation projects and enrichment toys and treats for our animals at the Zoo. Plus, who wouldn’t love to take their own little plush panda home with them? For fun, choose a panda with a pink ribbon or a blue ribbon to cast a guess at to which Yun Zi’s new sibling might be! Here’s a recent glimpse of the cutie…

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

Watch the pandas daily on Panda Cam.


The Bears Thank You

Enrichment toys are vital for a recovering sun bear's health. Photo courtesy of BSBCC

Several months ago, we put out a call via our Animal Care Wish List asking for donations to provide enrichment items for the sun bears housed with our new collaborative partner, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). You responded generously, and I am pleased to say we were able to send six new toys to the bears at the BSBCC. Thank you so much for your generosity!

The sun bear is a rare bear whose habitat is dwindling rapidly under pressure from deforestation. Primary causes of forest loss include illegal timber extraction and the development of palm oil plantations. Very few studies of wild sun bears have been conducted, and a population census of this species, or the Bornean subspecies, has never been conducted. However, their numbers must surely be on the decline as their habitat steadily shrinks.

One of my objectives is to find more opportunities to conduct research with sun bears, to learn more about them and facilitate conservation of this species. We have had the opportunity to observe the growth and development of four sun bear cubs born to our resident female, Marcella, but a larger sample size of animals was needed to conduct any statistically meaningful research into various aspects of their biology. Enter the BSBCC.

Siew Te Wong founded the BSBCC in Sabah, Borneo, to serve as a rescue and rehabilitation facility for orphaned and injured sun bears. “Wong,” as he is called, had conducted field work on these animals but recognized the need to provide care for bears impacted by forest loss and the illegal pet trade. In only 4 years of operation, the BSBCC has accumulated more than 20 sun bears. Some are destined for Wong’s developing reintroduction program, which will see them repatriated to the wild in time. Others are not good candidates for release and will likely live out their years at the BSBCC.

Thankfully, the BSBCC goes the extra mile to ensure a good home for its sun bears. It has several large outdoor pens that are essentially areas of enclosed natural habitat: giant trees, heavy canopy, soft forest soil, and a multitude of plants and bugs for the bears to enjoy. The enclosures are so natural that wild monkeys and birds often cruise in and perch in the canopy of their trees. The bears are carefully managed so that agreeable animals can be housed together as playmates when possible. Even so, there are so many of these animals that on any given day a few of the bears will be rotated inside so others can enjoy the outside spaces.

The BSBCC likes to provide enrichment for their indoor animals to ensure that their environment remains as stimulating as possible. And that’s where you come in. Your donations helped to aid in maintaining a quality of life for these bears that ensures their physical and emotional well-being. The photos here demonstrate that the bears are enjoying the toys immensely!

We are excited about developing our partnership with the BSBCC into a research opportunity. This will aid in the conservation of the smallest bear on Earth and could lend insight into the bear family tree. We know from our past work, for example, that sun bear mothers and panda mothers are very similar in their attentive maternal-care styles, and both pandas and sun bears differ from the less active hibernating bears like brown and black bears. What other similarities and differences between the bear species will we find?

Your gifts of enrichment were the first step in what I hope will be a long and informative road that leads to new discoveries about sun bears. Thank you again.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Monday: Black, White, and the Blues.


54th Birthday Party for Gorilla

Vila examines a birthday "gift."

It was a momentous occasion at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park when we celebrated gorilla Vila’s 54th birthday on November 23, 2011. Party guests included gorilla fans of all ages who have generously contributed to the gorillas’ online Animal Care Wish List, providing all kinds of items to pique the gorillas’ interest and stimulate their minds!

The exhibit was decorated with all kinds of fun: large, painted cardboard animals, papier-mache balloons, wrapped packages filled with treats like popcorn, raisins, carrots, bell peppers, apples, magazines with seeds inside, puzzle feeders, plastic balls filled with lettuce and kale, mirrors, paper towel rolls, lots of tasty plants such as ginger, banana leaves, and eugenia. A brightly colored “Happy Birthday” sign and streamers were glued to the wall with peanut butter!

Winston's curiousity is piqued by a colorful "present."

To look at her, you would never guess that Vila is a great-great grandmother, the matriarch of five generations of gorillas at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. Born in 1957, Vila was raised at the Zoo’s Children’s Zoo, where she grew to be a favorite among visitors and an important ambassador for her species. Participating in a landmark study on great ape intelligence that spanned six years, Vila contributed to the base of scientific knowledge about gorillas. Then paired with Albert, another San Diego legend, she gave birth in 1965 to Alvila, the first gorilla born in San Diego and only the fifth gorilla to be born in a zoo.

Upon moving to the Safari Park in 1975, Vila quickly endeared herself to the visitors and staff. Although reproductive problems prevented her from maintaining additional pregnancies, Vila’s gentleness and patience with infants made her a perfect candidate to be a surrogate mother for infants whose own mothers could not or would not take care of them. One such infant was her granddaughter, Alberta. Raised in the Park’s Animal Care Center, Alberta started making daily visits to the gorilla exhibit with her keepers at four months of age. It was Vila’s calm manner and sustained interest in the infant that earned Vila the opportunity to raise her granddaughter.

Winston strikes a pose next to a whimisical cardboard creature.

While Vila acted as a surrogate mother for hand-reared infants, mother-reared infants have also gravitated toward her. This attraction proved invaluable when Vila took over the care of Schroeder, a three-year-old whose mother had died of a rare condition. Although he no longer needed to nurse, such a young gorilla would still be in need of nurturing. Fortunately, he and Vila had already established an exceptionally strong bond, and she immediately took over his care, insuring his place in the troop.

Characteristically, Vila is letting our newest baby, little Monroe, call the shots in their relationship! At five months of age, the little guy is really starting to explore, and his mom, Kokamo, ever watchful, is loosening her grip. Just this morning, Monroe had his nose right next to Vila’s face as she ate some melon, and later, when he was clumsily trying to climb a hanging tire, Vila lent a helping hand and cradled his head in her palm.

Kokamo and son Monroe enjoy some leafy goodies.

Vila has a long history of nurturing infants and mentoring other gorillas, which not only establishes her as an invaluable member of the troop but also identifies the strength of the troop social dynamic and family unit. The capability of gorillas to overcome inadequacies in their rearing through the establishment of conspecific relationships is remarkable. The relationships between the individuals continue to evolve as youngsters are born into the troop and throughout all the stages of life.

Little is known about gerontology in gorillas, as they have only been studied in the wild since the mid-1960s. Throughout her life, Vila has and will continue to contribute immeasurably to the scientific base of knowledge for her species. She also continues to add a rich dimension to the daily life of her troop. It is a rare opportunity we have at the Safari Park to witness such a remarkably full gorilla life and vibrant, natural troop dynamic.

At the impressive age of 54, Vila is an elderly, but quite healthy, gorilla. Living in southern California certainly seems to agree with her. She receives a daily senior multivitamin. She has lost some teeth and, yes, tooth loss and periodontal disease have been reported in free-ranging gorilla populations. In the wild, this type of condition would eventually lead to the gorilla’s demise. Although Vila has lost a number of teeth throughout her life, she has the distinct advantage of exceptional medical care, and she continues to enjoy an excellent quality of life. Corn on the cob is still a favorite, and she doesn’t miss a kernel!

Watch video of all the fun!

Peggy Sexton is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, A Tribute to Gorilla Alberta.


Pandas and Trees

Yun Zi, still at home in the trees, on the trees, around the trees, tearing up the trees...

Whenever I think of fall, trees come to mind. Changing leaves start falling from their lofty branches down to earth as Mother Nature prepares the world for winter. Pandas are arboreal as youngsters, but as adults they are primarily ground dwelling. Still, each member of our panda family uses trees in different ways.

Gao Gao, our daddy panda, does not climb high trees very often, but he does like to use a tree as a backrest as he tears through his bamboo with Zen-like concentration. He also is famous for his handstands. Gao Gao does a handstand to put his scent mark as high as he can on a tree to let everyone know he’s been there.

Our mother bear, Bai Yun, has been climbing especially high in her tree lately. She uses it as a perfect lookout to see what the keepers are up to. You see, it is very important to know where the bringers-of-all-things-good are at all times! Bai Yun also loves to use her climbing structure in the middle of her exhibit as the perfect spot for a post-bamboo nap.

Yun Zi has many uses for his trees. He does love to sleep up high most of the time since he is still fairly young, but that’s the mellowest activity you will observe from him. Yun Zi has been romping around in typical teenager fashion, to the delight of our Zoo guests as of late, and this includes hanging upside down from his climbing structure, scent marking branches, and flopping his whole body atop the small elm tree in his exhibit, which has barely been able to withstand his destruction. Yun Zi also takes delight in ripping branches from this same elm and transporting them to various other parts of this exhibit. He reminds us of his older sister, Su Lin, whom we affectionately called “the redecorating diva.”

And then there is the artificial tree. The Zoo is very close to having enough funds to construct a new cement climbing tree in Yun Zi’s enclosure. We are just a few thousand dollars away from reaching our goal. If you enjoy watching our pandas in the trees, just image watching Yun Zi romp in a new, Yun-proof tree. Now that is something I am really looking forward to!

Michelle Penick is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, So Long, Summer.

If you’d like to contribute $10 (or more) toward that new tree for Yun Zi, please visit our Animal Care Wish List.