Gao Gao


Heartfelt Thanks to Our Invaluable and Inspiring Volunteers

San Diego Zoo Global Volunteers recently marked one million hours of service. They truly light up our lives—and the lives of the animals and plants at both the Zoo and the Safari Park!

San Diego Zoo Global Volunteers recently marked one million hours of service. They truly light up our lives—and the lives of the animals and plants at both the Zoo and the Safari Park!

April 12- 18 is National Volunteer Appreciation Week, and in the spirit of the celebration, we want to shout out to the world how truly invaluable and inspiring San Diego Zoo Global’s volunteers are. At the current time, we have over 1200 active volunteers in our system, but over the course of the year that often swells to over 2,000. The ebb and flow comes as extra help is requested for an event or fieldwork—and we always have eager hands ready to help. These amazing people give freely of their energy, expertise, and time—we recently hit one million hours of recorded service!

Our gifted volunteers support all of the staff, from keepers to educators to researchers and beyond! They make enrichment items for the animals, strip the bamboo used to make giant panda bread for Gao Gao, answer “Dear San Diego Zoo” letters from children around the world, help guests find their way at the Zoo and the Park (and give them information that makes their visit even more enjoyable), and more. And if you are one of the 16 million viewers that love our live animal cams, you have volunteers to thank for finding and zooming in on the special moments you can’t see anywhere else.

The dictionary defines the word dedicated as having very strong support for or loyalty to a person, group, or cause. And that certainly describes our volunteers, who freely engage in San Diego Zoo Global’s mission and vision to end extinction. “Words cannot describe how amazing our volunteers are,” says Tammy Rach, Senior Manager, Volunteer Services. “SDZG Volunteers support all of our staff, engage in our mission and vision, and greatly improve the guest experience. They also contribute ideas and funds in support of our conservation efforts, and share their passion and dedication throughout the community with everyone they encounter.”

Through their dedication, energy, and commitment, San Diego Zoo Global volunteers are both invaluable and inspirational. They are truly heroes for wildlife!

To learn more about becoming a San Diego Zoo Global Volunteer, click here.

Wendy Perkins is a staff writer and blog monitor for San Diego Zoo Global.


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.


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.


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.


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?