Gao Gao


In Peaceful Panda Canyon


Bai Yun is back on exhibit and delighting guests.

As we enter fall at the San Diego Zoo, things start to slow down in the Panda Canyon. Bai Yun did not have a cub this year and she is enjoying her alone time.  She is back on exhibit, so everyone can visit her in person or through Panda Cam. She’s doing well and is good at reminding her keepers that she is the Queen B (as in Bear). If she doesn’t get her way, she knows how to get her keepers attention by climbing the small elm tree in her exhibit.

Gao Gao has now moved off exhibit but you may sometimes see him on Panda Cam relaxing on his shelf.  He is also enjoying his air-conditioned bedrooms and his daily back scratches from his keepers. As Gao Gao ages, we are watching him and monitoring his health more closely. An example of this is his participation of presenting his arm for blood pressure readings once a week.  We get important information, and he gets to enjoy his favorite treat of honey water during these training sessions.

Xiao Liwu continues to excel with all his training. He, too, gets his blood pressure read once a week as a comparison to Gao Gao’s readings. He has not had to learn any new behaviors lately, but he has learned to train his keepers. Mr. Wu now asks for several back scratches, just like his dad! He is now considered a subadult and has been having several highly energetic bouts playing with his enrichment toys and destroying plants. He has been testing several tree branches in his exhibit—we find them the next morning.  He has turned into a mighty little bear at 157 pounds (71 kilograms) and is almost bigger than his dad, who weighs 169 pounds (77 kilograms).

I hope all of his fans heard that Mr. Wu won the “snowball fight” (a friendly fundraising effort) against the polar bears. We are looking forward to a snow day once the weather gets cooler in San Diego. The date is tentatively set for November 14, but we will keep everyone updated if that day changes.

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Ahoy! Let’s Celebrate Xiao Liwu’s Birthday!


Special Bread for a Special Panda: San Diego Zoo Staff Bakes Bamboo Bread Daily for Elderly Giant Panda

PrintIt is commonly known that giant pandas eat a diet that consists almost entirely of bamboo, a very abrasive grass, as their primary source of nutrition. Pandas can spend up to 12 hours a day eating bamboo, and this can be very tough on a panda’s teeth. Gao Gao (pronounced Gow Gow), a male panda living at the San Diego Zoo, is estimated to be around 25 years old—and because he has worn teeth due to his age, this makes it difficult for him to chew the abrasive bamboo stalks. To provide him the opportunity for optimum health and make his mealtimes a little easier, Zoo nutritionists and keepers have developed a special bread for Gao Gao, made from bamboo leaves.

The process to make the bread seems basic, but it is long and requires many hours—and many hands. There are volunteers who give their time to strip leaves from the stalks of bamboo. There is a research associate in the San Diego Zoo’s nutritional services department who dries and grinds the leaves. And then there are the keepers who mix the leaves with primate biscuits and steam the specialty bread every day for Gao Gao.

“Baking bamboo bread daily for Gao Gao is time-consuming, but a labor of love for all of us who work with him,” stated Jennifer Becerra, senior mammal keeper, San Diego Zoo. “It is important for Gao Gao to eat his bamboo, keeping him healthy and satiated, and the bread provides him an easy way to consume this staple of his diet.”

Gao Gao receives three meals a day. In addition to the bamboo bread, his meals consist of cracked bamboo stalks, sliced sweet potatoes, primate biscuits and sliced apples, sometimes drizzled with his favorite treat of honey.

Gao Gao and the Zoo’s two other pandas, 24-year-old female Bai Yun (pronounced By Yoon), and their 3-year-old son Xiao Liwu (pronounced Sshyaoww Lee Woo), can be seen at their Panda Trek habitat, consisting of large exhibit areas with trees, climbing structures and off-exhibit air-conditioned bedrooms. With the recent unusually warm weather, the senior Gao Gao has preferred to spend much of his time in his cool bedroom. Panda fans also may watch the pandas on the Zoo’s Panda Cam at sandiegozoo.org/pandacam.

The San Diego Zoo’s giant pandas are on a research loan from the People’s Republic of China. As part of this long-term program, the Zoo is also collaborating with the Chinese Academy of Science in studies of behavior, ecology, genetics and conservation of wild pandas living in the Foping Nature Reserve.

Only 1,600 giant pandas are believed to exist in the wild. The animals’ reliance on bamboo leaves pandas vulnerable to any loss of their habitat—currently the major threat to their survival in the wild. San Diego Zoo Global, in conjunction with Chinese panda experts, continues to work on science-based panda conservation programs.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.



Summer Pandas


Xiao Liwu got a swing for his birthday—the perfect gift for this active young bear!

The end of the Zoo’s longer summer hours is in sight, and our animals are getting hit with another big heat wave. This year has been a more mild summer as a whole, but we have had some small sprints of heat. Many of you, visiting or watching, have noticed that Gao Gao has spent many of his summer days in the air conditioning. While this has been frustrating for our guests visiting, please know how much we appreciate your cooperation while we get Gao Gao bear through summer.

While Gao Gao has been relaxing most of the day, Xiao Liwu has been quite a character to watch! Throughout the day we have observed him having random energy bursts, and showing off to our guests. Remember this is normal for a panda as they go through their first hormone shift at three years of age! For those of us that have been watching him since birth, up close, it’s great to see him really exhibit these bear behaviors.

I have had the amazing opportunity to watch five of our panda cubs go through their first hormone shift, and it NEVER gets old. Right now I can honestly say that there is no perfect time to come visit the pandas for good activity levels; there are mornings where Mr. Wu is entirely on FOOD mode, there’s SLEEP mode, and then there’s DEMO mode! Right now, he has been eating for several hours a day, no specific time, and there is almost always a time where he is running, rolling around, and jumping on stuff in his enclosure.

Bai Yun is still in our behind-the scenes-area. As many of you know, our vets have come to the conclusion that she is not pregnant. While we are of course disappointed, we are glad that she is healthy and doing well. Our keepers will be working with her on a daily basis, and getting her out of her den and outside into her garden room. This is a process in itself. Making sure she’s comfortable is their number one priority and they are easing her back into her normal routine.

So thank you again for your understanding and helping us keep our animals comfortable—remember that in the heat of the day none of our bears are really going to want to be up and about! And this coming week, drink lots of water while you’re visiting us at the Zoo!


What’s Up with Bai Yun?

Bai Yun has already taught us so much, but apparently "class" is still in session!

Bai Yun has already taught us so much, but apparently “class” is still in session!

I have just returned from China, and am happy to say that I had the opportunity to visit Giant Panda research bases at Bi Fengxia and Wolong. While I was most excited to visit with our San Diego-born pandas, we arrived at the Bi Fengxia base in Ya’an to some exciting and unexpected news: Ying Ying, born in 1991, had come into estrus. She bred naturally and had just been artificially inseminated. Amazingly, this was not the only unexpected news I received that day: emails from the Panda Team back at the San Diego Zoo indicated that Bai Yun’s behavior was escalating, as was Gao Gao’s motivation. Could Bai Yun be coming into estrus?

The Panda Team is made up of scientists, animal care specialists and veterinarians. All are experts in their respective fields, and all with years (and in some cases decades) of experience. However, the fact of the matter is, we all take our lead from Bai Yun. Since Bai Yun’s arrival at the San Diego Zoo back in 1996, she has demonstrated ‘text book’ reproductive behavior and physiology. As a result, we have been able to observe the reproductive process in giant pandas in great detail, and have learned much from Bai Yun that has informed our approach to conservation breeding of giant pandas in general.

In 2012, Bai Yun was just days shy of being the oldest panda female to have successfully given birth and raised a cub. With that knowledge, we all thought that Xiao Liwu would be Bai Yun’s last cub. However—and as always—it was not up to us. Our plan then, as it has always been, was to monitor Bai Yun closely after she weaned Xiao Liwu, and follow her lead. Thus, in the spring of 2014, we began, once again, monitoring Bai Yun once again for signs of estrus. However, after a few days of estrus-like behavior, all went quiet and we did not have any breeding introductions. Further, because her estrous behavior and estrous hormones did not peak, we did not do an artificial insemination.

As it turns out, Bai Yun likes to keep us on our toes! I can say with confidence that no one on the Panda Team thought that Bai Yun would have a full-blown estrus this year—but that is not up to us to decide! Not long ago, Bai Yun started to show all the classic behavioral signs of estrus, and her hormone profile changed along with it. Scent marking, vocalizations, and tail-up behavior all unfolded in an unambiguous display of estrus. Gao Gao’s interest in Bai Yun was very strong, and he was clearly motivated to breed. When the time was right, Bai Yun and Gao Gao were introduced. While Gao Gao did not appear to be successful in his breeding attempt, the strength of Bai Yun’s estrous behavior and hormone profile indicated that she had indeed ovulated! The breeding season was not over yet.

Shi Shi, the male who came with Bai Yun to the San Diego Zoo in 1996, was a wild born male, and the sire to Hua Mei. He is a genetically valuable male, and semen collected from him years ago is still in great condition. Any offspring from Shi Shi are valuable to the overall conservation-breeding program for giant pandas, and so it was decided to artificially inseminate Bai Yun with Shi Shi’s sperm.

At this point, as always, we will wait and see what Bai Yun does; we will follow her lead, and make sure she has all that she needs. She has a way of teaching us new things all the time, and has continued to make valuable contributions  to giant panda conservation efforts. We will monitor her behavior to start with, and eventually we will look for other signs of pregnancy through thermal imaging and ultrasound. And we will share our findings with all of you along the way!

Megan Owen is an associate director in the Applied Animal Ecology Division, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Polar Bear Tatqiq Wears It Well.


Good Weather, Good Food

Gao Gao has been in fine form lately, climbing trees and scent marking.

Gao Gao has been in fine form lately, climbing trees and generally giving keepers quite a show!

Lately, as I have been narrating down at the panda enclosure, I’m seeing the bears relax, sit back, and enjoy the food. As many of you know, we feed several different types of bamboo to our bears, and in recent days they have really been enjoying themselves! Bai Yun will often eat for a few hours at a time, and even Mr Xiao Liwu has been doing very well ripping the bamboo apart. And it seems while they’ve been relaxing, panda fans have been thinking; we have been getting a lot of questions about breeding the bears this year.

As of last week we have not seen any change in Bai Yun hormone reading or physical state. However, on a fairly regular basis we have observed her scent marking repeatedly around the enclosure, and even engaging in “water play”, a behavior we typically see when there is a hormone shift. As it is still early for her regular breeding season, we expect to continue watching her closely over the next couple of months and will monitor any progression towards an estrus. She is extremely healthy; one of the benefits about being captive born is a fantastic health package!

Gao Gao has been eating extremely well in his off-exhibit digs, and has been climbing up and down the trees giving our keepers quite a show in the back area. Engaging in handstand scent markings is always fun to see, and having him this active is a nice change of pace.

Now, please remember: even though he is quite vigorous right now and showing a lot of enthusiasm, we cannot put him in with Bai Yun unless we have positive evidence showing her in estrus. Our vet staff will ultimately have the final word on breeding the bears, and rest assured they always keep the animals’ best interests in mind and at heart.

Little Mr. Wu has also been showing lots of energy and spunk. On a daily basis we see him run around the enclosure, playing with enrichment that keepers have put out for him. Our guests have enjoyed watching him and his moves, and it has been great to show our guests what these bears are capable of. Over the next few months we may see more activity and more growth spurts!

Come see us soon!


Happy Anniversary, Gao Gao!

Celebrating a dozen delightful years with Gao Gao!

January 15, 2015 marks a dozen delightful years with Gao Gao at the Zoo!

Gao Gao’s 12th anniversary (he arrived in San Diego Jan. 15, 2003) is coming up at the San Diego Zoo and what a glorious time it has been. He has been the perfect mate for Bai Yun and has fathered five cubs (Mei Sheng, Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, Yun Zi, and Xiao Liwu). He may be small but he has a huge personality and presence among his keepers. As he always enjoys and demands his daily scratches from us.

This Thursday, Gao Gao will have a quiet anniversary celebration in the Classroom Exhibit with some special enrichment throughout the day that will include his favorite scents: cinnamon spice, ginseng root perfume, and rubbing alcohol!. He does not get an ice cake anymore due to his old teeth, but he will get extra apples and honey, and my favorite part of the day—extra scratches from his keepers.

Lately, Gao Gao has preferred the quiet life of living in the classroom exhibits with access to his bedroom whenever he desires. His exhibit is not open to the public and only gets visits by early morning tours and special behind the scenes events. You can see him on Panda Cam Daily from 6:30a.m. until 2:30p.m. PST.

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Party for Mr. Wu.


Pandas in Winter

Cold temperatures? Extra bamboo? Works for Bai Yun!

Cold temperatures? Extra bamboo? Works for Bai Yun!

For the first time in a long time, our pandas are actually getting some truly winter weather. We’ve had some rain recently, and temperatures in the first week of the new year were really low for our region. And the geography of the Zoo means some parts of the grounds feel the chill more than others; Panda Canyon is usually 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the main entrance (where temperatures were in the mid-50s). Although the staff is feeling a bit chilly, the bears are loving this weather!

Giant pandas have a very thick, dense fur coat and like most bears they will try to gain as much weight as possible for winter, but they do not go into torpor (commonly called hibernation). Unlike their counterparts in China and zoos in colder parts of the world, our pandas don’t usually have much of a winter to deal with, but rest assured they are all doing just fine with this cold snap!

We always offer more food than what the bears will actually eat. This allows them to have variety in their diet but also giving them access to extra calories should they so desire. Our pandas do not weigh as much as other pandas that go through more severe winters, because they don’t need the extra insulating fat layer here in San Diego.

As someone who has worked both directly and indirectly (as a Panda Narrator) with the bears, I can honestly say that I love watching them in cold weather. You get to see them eat more and the younger pandas get a little more hop to their step. Yun Zi was one of my favorites to watch in winter. He was always an active fellow, but when it was cold or raining he’d roll in the mud and really tear his exhibit apart. Not always fun to clean up after, but a blast to observe!

No matter what the weather, Bai Yun tends to do her normal thing—eat till she’s tired, then take a nap. I often joke that she’s been here in San Diego for so long nothing much can surprise her anymore. Gao Gao will remain off exhibit in the North Exhibit, with regular access to his bedroom. The perk about having the back area to himself is that he can pretty much run his day however he wants. Inside or out he’s got full reign of the area in the back. Mr. Wu will be on exhibit, and I’m looking forward to watching him and see how he reacts to this cold snap. I know it’s not cold compared to where a lot of you are from, but for these bears, and us, it’s definitely a change!

Happy New Year and hope you are all well! Come see us soon in 2015!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator and keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Dealing with Noise in Panda Canyon.


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.


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.


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.