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Gao Gao

109

Gao Gao: Class Clown

Gao Gao was busy munching on his leafy bamboo this morning. Image taken from Panda Cam.

Gao Gao was busy munching on his leafy bamboo this morning. Image taken from Panda Cam.

Although our senior panda, Gao Gao, is still off exhibit, he is much improved after his May surgery (see post Surgery for Gao Gao). I spoke with Gaylene Thomas, animal care supervisor, to get the latest scoop on Papa Gao. She said he had additional dental work performed on a damaged/worn molar in June, and that procedure seemed to help guide him down Recovery Road—his appetite and energy have returned!

Being a born bamboo-eating machine, Gao Gao had always preferred to eat the thick bamboo culm, which was so hard on his teeth, rather than the much-gentler leafy bamboo. And that was just at the feedings when he was even interested in food; leading up to his May surgery, Gao Gao frequently exhibited lethargy and loss of appetite. But these days, our senior panda has taken to eating the leafy bamboo with renewed gusto, so there is no need to provide the thicker stuff for him. He is more active and animated, often exploring his yard and playfully seeking his keepers’ attention. Sometimes he does his playful antics to elicit tactile interaction: back or head scratches, provided by the keepers with the use of a wooden back scratcher. But sometimes he just does them to make his keepers smile! Who knew Gao could be such a clown?

So why do we continue to keep him in the off-exhibit north yard? Plain and simple: the Panda Team still wants to keep a close eye on him, and that side of the Giant Panda Research Station has a larger air-conditioned bedroom for him and much easier access to the area where his blood pressure is monitored. Gao Gao is eager to participate in these sessions once again, with apple slices and honey (or perhaps just that extra attention?) as his reward. Whatever the reason, Gaylene shared that she is “really happy he’s doing so well.” Me, too!

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global.

63

Gao Gao Getting Big Big

Gao Gao: It's all good!

As many of you may remember, adult panda Gao Gao has been having digestive-tract issues for the last year or so, which has led to some strange behavior. He’s had several days when he hasn’t wanted to rise in the morning and has been unresponsive to his keeper’s calls. This behavior is actually pretty common in pandas living in managed-care facilities and occurs in conjunction with the passing of a mucous stool. However, on these days when our boy was “sleeping in,” he would not pass a mucous stool. On other days, we saw lots of his “tongue flicking” behavior, which is biting his tongue and flicking it routinely.

On October 6, 2011, Gao Gao had exploratory surgery in an effort to determine the source of his discomfort (see post Gao Gao: Road to Recovery). The exploratory surgery was used to look for any obstructions that could have caused some of his discomfort. While he was under anesthesia, veterinarians were able to check out every bit of Gao, including his teeth. They discovered that his back molars were very worn down, that some existing bridgework between two of his molars needed repairing, and that one of his canines was loose. Aha! The reason for his tongue flicking and possibly the reason for his digestive issues.

If a panda is lucky enough to die of old age in the wild, the cause of its death is most often starvation. Years of eating bamboo (an extremely strong grass, remember, from which flooring and furniture is made) wear down a bear’s teeth pretty well. When a panda cannot properly break down food in its mouth, the food cannot then be properly digested. Gao is very lucky to live in a managed-care situation, where he has had the necessary dental work and has a team that can adjust his diet. As a result, of course, our poor old man has had to give up some of his favorite foods. But never fear! He’s gained some new ones.

We’ve been steaming “bamboo bread” for Gao Gao, which he receives three times a day as part of his new diet. The bread is made up of ground leaf eater biscuits, dried and ground bamboo stems and leaves, water, and a small bit of gelatin to act as an adhesive. The bread is a soft, palatable food that delivers the same nutrition that bamboo can provide. Basically, it’s easier for him to chew and digest… and boy, does he ever! Our Gao has become a bread addict. Having the bamboo bread in his diet has helped him become “Big Big,” for sure. His latest weight was 174 pounds (79 kilograms), the largest he’s been in many years!

Gao’s also getting bamboo that is smaller in diameter. We have a one-centimeter rule when making up his bamboo diet, meaning any piece that we give him has to be one centimeter in diameter or smaller. We can’t just give him tiny pieces, though. Pandas spend up to 12 hours eating, a large portion of which means stripping the outer green layer off of the bamboo. If he’s only given tiny pieces of bamboo, he doesn’t really have the opportunity to do that. So, we also take large pieces of bambusa oldhamii culm and split it into pieces that are one-centimeter wide. The culm can be any thickness, so long as it’s not too difficult for us to split (by hand, mind you). He gets 60 pieces a day, split into tiny bits by his keepers. Talk about spoiled!

Since his diet changes, Gao had a bout of passing too many mucous stools in a row. Then he had a bout of having episodes similar to those he was having prior to his surgery. We continue to tweak his diet and change the bamboo-bread recipe. We will continue to do so until it’s just right. So far, though, it seems we’re on the right track, and our old man is as sweet and handsome as he ever was.

Juli Thatcher is a senior panda keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Cam, Panda Trek.

33

Gao Gao and His Bread

Gao Gao

Here at the San Diego Zoo, we are dedicated to making sure our animals have the best quality of life that we can offer them, with great keepers and vets. Some of our animals do begin to show their age in different ways as they get older, be it teeth, arthritis, cataracts, or even organ failure. For one particular panda at the Zoo, dental care has become a major upkeep. I’m speaking, of course, of Gao Gao, our fabulous adult male panda.

Gao Gao’s exact age is unknown, but we think he could be in his early 20s. In the wild, these animals would typically live 14 to 20 years, and a huge factor contributing to their decline is their teeth, which often wear down to the point that the panda is unable to feed itself anymore. We have run into similar issues with Gao Gao: a root canal has been done on his front canine tooth, and a bridge was recently done for him as well. These procedures are to help keep him comfortable, but we have had to greatly modify his diet to also assist with his eating habits. Gao Gao only gets thin pieces of bamboo to help alleviate daily stress on his teeth, and he gets more leaf eater biscuits, apples, carrots, and yams. He also gets a special bread made of bamboo that has been ground down and mixed with the biscuits. This gives him something a little different, and it has helped keep his weight up.

Gao Gao is currently 175 pounds (79 kilograms) and going strong. He has been spending quite a bit of time resting and taking it easy in the shade, but once he’s been given fresh food for lunch, he’s out there eating for over two hours on some days. As Gao Gao’s needschange, our staff is ready to modify whatever he may need to ensure that he has the best quality of life and is as comfortable as possible!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Bai Yun: Enjoying Time Off.

21

Hello, Handsome Yun Zi!

Welcome back to the spotlight, Yun Zi!

It has been a couple of months, but I’m happy to report that giant panda Yun Zi is now on exhibit for guests to view. Sunday, May 13, was his first day back, and he was putting on quite a show for our lucky guests in the morning. A perfect Mother’s Day treat for our visiting mothers!

Since father Gao Gao was in that exhibit previously, Yun Zi spent the morning scent marking the entire exhibit. He also was running around and rolling around to show off and have fun. When the front viewing area was redone a couple of years ago, our keepers tried to keep panda youngsters in mind when they requested more climbing structures. Yun Zi is the perfect example of why that is so important for a young, growing panda. He was climbing, scent marking the tree and going all the way to the top to smell the air. It was really an amazing morning for our youngster!

Those who had not seen him in a while were shocked at how big Mr. Yun Zi has gotten. Currently, his weight is about 180 pounds, and he is looking like he is going to be rather tall as well. Since he is 2½ years old, he could potentially continue growing for a couple more years. But just like his parents, his weight can fluctuate with weather changes and different life changes (hormones). Many of our guests told me about being at the San Diego Zoo two years ago and seeing a little baby; they wondered what had happened to him. Just about all of them were astounded when I’d point to Yun Zi and say, “Here he is!”

If you get the chance, please come and visit him, and take a peak on the Panda Cam. As for mother Bai Yun, she has been moved into the north exhibit, which is currently closed to our guests, so that when we begin doing our thermal imaging on a regular basis she is easily accessible. Our first thermal imaging procedure has already taken place; Bai Yun cooperated beautifully, and we have nothing to report. Please remember that it can take a while for our researchers and vet staff to see anything that would indicate a pregnancy. Paws crossed!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Narrator at Safari Park.

21

Dependable Pandas

Open the door, please!

Neither snow, nor rain, nor gloom of night…

We’ve had some wild weather here in Southern California for the past few days. Saturday night, a blustery storm passed through. Blowing winds, downpours of rain, some hail, and snow in the mountain areas left everything sopping wet and cold. But Bai Yun woke up Sunday morning ready to breed. And as always, our trusty male Gao Gao was up to the job.

The exhibits were slick with mud and water, and Bai Yun seemed a little less cooperative than usual. Gao Gao had to convince her to drop her shoulders to the ground to allow him to get the best positioning. Bai Yun weighs 231 pounds (105 kilograms), and Gao Gao is a mere 163 pounds (74 kilos) by comparison, so “convincing” involved a lot of nibbling on her shoulders and pulling at her midsection to get her just right.

Fortunately, he succeeded in his endeavors, and at 8:04 Sunday morning, we had our first copulation of 2012. It’s possible that more of these will follow. Ideally, we would like to get one or two more breedings out of this pair today to make this season a success. Even if the weather remains a challenge, Gao Gao has proven that stormy conditions will not stay him from the swift completion of his appointed duties.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Getting to Know You, Again.

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Getting to Know You, Again

Bai Yun's not interested in food these days!

Giant panda Bai Yun continues to march through estrus. Her rate of scent marking has increased from its baseline of roughly .08 bouts per hour to a whopping 43 bouts per hour this morning. She is walking through water quite a bit, a behavior that likely aids in scent dispersal, as her drippy fur leaves a trail of wet odor while she motors about. She continues to ignore her bamboo and even spit yams back at the keepers during a hearing study trial today. She’s fussy, and squirmy, and acting totally normal for a female in estrus.

On the physiological front, she has also given signs of her status. Her genitalia have enlarged in size and changed color. Swabs of her reproductive tract indicate that its composition of cells is changing in a manner consistent with an approaching breeding window. We are running hormone samples when we can get them, but so far today Bai Yun hasn’t given us enough urine to submit something to our lab.

We were thinking we might need to open the howdy gate between our adults in a few days, in anticipation of a breeding window. However, this morning Bai Yun could hear Gao Gao bleating on the other side of the wall between them. She was very attentive to his calls, and she even bleated back several times. It’s unusual for her to be bleating already, her “advertising stage,” remember? She should be silently marking. But no, she was clearly telling us this morning that she was ready to get reacquainted with her mate.

In response, this afternoon we opened the howdy gate for visual access. Gao Gao, as anticipated, was happy to check out the view, and several times he quietly approached while Bai Yun was nearby. For her part, our matriarch sat in close proximity to the gate for the better part of half an hour. She sent him mixed signals: a chirp (which says “come hither”) followed by a bark (which means “stay away”). Sometimes she sat still looking at him; sometimes, she charged the gate. Back and forth she went between the vocalizations. When she chirped, Gao Gao would stay close, sniffing at her and the gate. When she barked, he would leave, but only for a little while. He knows not to be gone too long.

In the coming days, Bai Yun’s barks and ambivalence will give way to more solicitous behavior. Gao Gao will help us keep track of her change of status with his behavior. Follow along on the Panda Cam, and see if you can see that change yourself. We’re looking for rear-present, tail-up behavior on her part. With him, we are looking for a consistent presence at the gate, even pulling at the gate when she is near. When she starts backing into that gate with her tail raised, you’ll know it’s time.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Who You Calling Old?

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Pandas: Shaved Bellies

Bai Yun enjoys a meal during snow day in December.

If you’ve been to the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Trek recently, you may have noticed our giant pandas sporting a new look. Our female, Bai Yun, and our male, Gao Gao, have shaved bellies, and their arms have shaved patches of fur. Don’t be alarmed! There is nothing wrong with them.

Recently, both of our adult pandas went to the San Diego Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine for pre-breeding and general physical exams. With breeding season right around the corner, we want to make sure that Bai Yun is healthy and ready for what the future will bring. During breeding season, Gao Gao will smell Bai Yun in heat and become much more active. He also will get excited and begin to scent mark in a handstand position. Bai Yun, in the meantime, will begin scent marking her exhibit with great enthusiasm to promote the message that her hormones are beginning to shift and that breeding season is here.

When (and if!) we put the adults together, it is a carefully orchestrated process. As in the past, we would let them have access to a mutual fence so they can check each other out. If Bai Yun is ready, and Gao Gao is at the fence, the gate dividing them would be opened by the Panda Team. Breeding may span two or more days, but the actual time that they are together is much less than that. Gao Gao is typically the one who lets us know that he is finished with breeding season by not soliciting attention from our female and not showing interest in breeding again.

As many of you know, Bai Yun is 21 years old, which is older for a female in breeding years. Bai Yun is not technically in estrus yet, and she is still being observed closely. The Panda Team will start collecting urine samples so that our reproductive physiologist will be able to monitor her hormone levels. The oldest female that we know of who gave birth in a managed-care facility was 21 years old. There is a very good chance that Bai Yun may not breed or get pregnant this year. We will do our best to keep our guests and fans updated, but we want everyone to keep that information in mind.

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Our Growing Takin Herd.

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Musical Chairs, I Mean Bears!

Yun Zi enjoys a holiday "tree" during snow days last month.

If you come to the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Trek right now you may see a familiar face on exhibit. It’s Yun Zi! Currently we have the two boys out for public viewing as we continue construction projects in Panda Canyon, so we have shifted Bai Yun into our indoor area where she has access to her bedroom, sun room, and garden room. Our keepers say that she is loving life, enjoying the quiet time to herself, and eating quite a bit.

Outside, however, Yun Zi is making his presence known. One his first day back in the main viewing area he was re-scenting the enclosure that Gao Gao is usually in. He had a busy day performing handstands on the walls, trees, and, of course, his water dish. He was exhibiting some great behaviors, covering up another male’s scent!

Yun Zi now weighs 158 pounds (72 kilograms) and is filling out nicely. He is eating very well and I think he looks very impressive. Yun Zi is doing training with his keeper as often as possible so that as he gets bigger and older we can perform some of the same husbandry activities as we do for his parents, such as blood draws and ultrasounds.

Gao Gao is also doing very well. He has moved into Bai Yun’s normal enclosure (the left-side exhibit), and the first day he was also re-scenting the walls. As Bai Yun doesn’t do handstands like males do, most of Gao’s time was spent marking the ground and the top of the cave where she likes to sleep. Gao Gao is currently at 165 pounds (75 kilograms) and has been enjoying his panda bread. As some of you know, he has had a few dental issues, something older pandas often experience, but is doing well. The bread is offered to increase the amount of fiber in his diet by incorporating bamboo in a softer form. He currently gets very thin bamboo, and his panda bread is being mixed with some of those yummy leaf eater biscuits to add taste and, of course, nutrition.

The boys have not been too curious about the bear next door, although I have seen each put his head back, smelling the air. Of course, there could be a number of things to smell, but having another male that close should let us see some interesting behavior in the future. As Gao Gao is not much of a climber, it will most likely be Yun Zi who will be looking over the wall. Yun Zi is a very good climber, and when Bai Yun was next door, he would often climb up the tree and smell the air. Bai Yun has never really exhibited any interest in her son next door. I know for some that may seem cold, but these animals are naturally solitary and really do prefer to be by themselves. Watching them on a daily basis, I can honestly say that they thrive in their natural state.

Come see Yun Zi soon, and please don’t mind the construction going on right now!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Construction in Panda Trek.

40

Not-So-Cold Winter for Pandas

Yun Zi enjoyed snow day last month.

Many of our San Diego Zoo visitors have been surprised at how active our pandas have been. It doesn’t really get that cold here in San Diego; therefore, our bears don’t experience the winter season like cold-weather bears. Giant pandas do not hibernate in the wild, and here at the Zoo we don’t see that behavior, either. Typically, if the weather does get cold, we notice an increase in the pandas’ intake of bamboo, and we see their weight increase by up to 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms). This year, we are seeing a fairly slow increase of weight in Yun Zi, and our adults are staying relatively stable, weight-wise.

As for our pandas’ activity levels, everyone is a little different. Bai Yun has been taking this time away from cubs to sleep and relax, and it’s funny how many moms that come to the Zoo can entirely relate to her! She has been eating quite a bit, but then again she always did. This is the first winter that she has not had a cub with her since the winter of 2002. I know so many of you are wondering if we are going to breed Gao Gao and Bai Yun again, and we cannot answer that at this time.

Gao Gao has been up to his normal antics, eating whenever he gets the chance and taking a nice nap in the hay or shavings that our keepers have provided. He is eating his bamboo plus his regular extras: apples, carrots, yams, and leaf eater biscuits. He is also eating panda bread, which is made of ground-up bamboo, and our keepers sometimes put the leaf eater biscuits in the bread as well. Overall, Gao Gao is doing well.

Yun Zi has been on a roller coaster of active levels and naps. Since he is still young, and still growing, we will continue to see his activity levels fluctuate until he is full grown. This past Tuesday, he moved to the front viewing area and Gao Gao was moved into the back, and we had quite a bit of scent marking and interest in what and who was in there before. On Wednesday, Gao Gao went back into the main viewing exhibit, and he also went through the motions of re-scenting his territory.

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Talkin’ Takins.

36

Yun Zi: Burst of Energy

Remember when trees had nothing to fear from Yun Zi?

Through the years that I’ve narrated at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station, I have had the pleasure of watching three panda cubs grow from birth to their departure to China. I’ve seen their personalities come out and have watched them bloom into sub-adulthood. There are the early months where mobility is limited and dependent on Mom, and there are the times when learning to walk and climb can become overwhelming for a cub. Some of my favorite moments with the youngsters have been between the ages of 2 and 3 years. The cubs will often have days where they become extremely energetic and behave in dramatically different ways than what our Zoo guests are accustomed to. Yun Zi has hit this stage, and I have to say it’s a blast to watch him!

The last couple of weeks have proven to be very interesting. Yun Zi has been running around the exhibit several times, dashing up and down the climbing structures several times, and running through his pool, making his exhibit a nice slip n’ slide for our poor keepers. Having done keeper work with our Panda Team for a few years now, I can honestly say that muddy, wet bamboo can be very difficult to clean up! There was one morning when a keeper and I went into Yun Zi’s exhibit to clean and just stood there for a second to take everything in. He had thrown bamboo all over the enclosure and defecated in spots that can be difficult to clean. Yun Zi had even decided to break several of the branches off of a new tree that had just been planted. What usually is a 30-minute cleaning job maximum with two keepers turned into a good hour.

Needless to say, we do our best to provide enrichment for our animals to keep them busy, but at this particular age it is very common to see the kids turn into decorators and change their exhibit around in some way. As Gao Gao and Bai Yun are in the main viewing enclosures, Yun Zi is occupying our north exhibit for the time being (usually open to guests from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.).

Hope everyone has happy holidays!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Hello, Gao Gao.

Note: Our December Animal Care Wish List is now posted and includes an opportunity to donate toward a sturdy, panda-proof tree at $10 increments. Every little bit helps! Thank you.