Did you know the San Diego Zoo has a bakery for animals? Do the animals like to eat bread with milk or hot chocolate? Well, not exactly, but there is one animal who is eating a special bread—a giant panda!
At the San Diego Zoo, our senior panda Gao Gao has some problems with his teeth, making it hard for him to eat his favorite food—bamboo. To help him continue eating bamboo, we created a type of bread which, of course, includes his favorite item.
Making a yummy bread for Gao Gao is not an easy task. It requires intensive work, commitment, and dedication. The Zoo’s Horticulture department provides the bamboo for the pandas; the Nutritional Services staff, along with keepers and volunteers, spend hours stripping leaves off branches. The leaves are then baked (dried) for 24 hours so they will be crunchy and perfect for the bread. The dried leaves are then ground up. The final product is chunky,
dried pieces of leaves that we call leaf flour.
The leaf flour is delivered to the panda kitchen, where the panda keepers make the bread. Ground primate biscuits are mixed with the leaf flour. Panda keepers adjust the amount of leaf flour they need to add to find the right consistency for the bread. They then add water. However, those ingredients are not enough to keep the dough together. To keep the shape of the bread, unflavored gelatin is added as a key ingredient. The mix is placed in a steamer for 50 minutes.
After all that, the bread is ready to be offered to our elder panda, not only for his enjoyment but to meet his nutritional needs.
Giant pandas are considered specialist animals, meaning their diet is based mainly on one item, in this case, bamboo. If a panda is not able to eat enough bamboo to meet his energy and nutritional requirements, his health can be compromised. The panda bread helps to keep our panda healthy. This daily food item will be part of Gao Gao’s diet for the rest of his life.
Many departments (Horticulture, Nutritional Services, Collections Husbandry Science), volunteers, and sometimes keepers from other Zoo areas (such as the Neonatal Assisted Care Unit), make the effort every day to supply and process the bamboo to keep Gao Gao healthy. Next time you see Gao Gao, think of how fortunate he is to have such dedicated, hard-working staff and volunteers who strive to provide him the best care.
Edith Galindo is a research technician at the San Diego Zoo.