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giant panda Bai Yun

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Toast to Bai Yun: Making a Panda Cake

An ice cake from 2000.

Bai Yun absconds with Hua Mei’s 1st birthday cake in 2000.

On Saturday, September 7, was our third ice cake presentation to the San Diego Zoo’s pandas for this year—we celebrated our adult giant panda Bai Yun’s 22nd birthday. With help from the staff from the Zoo’s Nutritional Services, she received a gigantic 215-pound cake. It was a 2-tiered sculpture adorned with confetti ice cubes and topped off with two 2-foot toasting glasses holding the number 22, made of ice, bamboo, yams, and apples. We also made a special ice plaque piped with the names of all of Bai Yun’s babies and the year they were born.

An ice cake from 2002.

Hua Mei gets a  cake to herself when she turns 3 in 2002.

Ice cake making takes quite a bit of time and thought. There are a few factors to be considered when carrying out the process.

Originality
Every cake is different. Whether it’s the use of varying shades of food coloring or the shapes used to form each layer, no two cakes are alike. This year we experimented with pureed steamed yams mixed with food coloring to pipe names, designs, and flowers. It worked very nicely and will be a technique used on future cakes.

 

Mei Sheng celebrated his 2nd birthday in 2005.

Mei Sheng celebrated his 2nd birthday in 2005.

Enrichment
We also take into consideration how the panda will interact with the cake. Fresh treats are strategically placed on the cake. We placed some in easy-to-find places and hid some in the cups so we could see the panda scale her cake.

Honey is one of the panda’s favorites and a common ingredient in each cake. If you ever see them endlessly licking the ice, it’s most likely the sweet, sticky treat!

 

 

Zhen Zhen inspects her 3rd birthday cake.

Zhen Zhen inspects her 3rd birthday cake.

Durability
Having ice is especially welcome during the hot days of summer, but it can be challenging, since it melts faster. We make all pieces thicker so there will be cake upon delivery and at least through the first hour of presentation. Our pandas love to climb their cakes, so we have to make sure all the layers are extra sturdy by using bamboo culms for support and an extra-heavy bottom layer to prevent the cake from toppling over.

 

 

Yun Zi's fabulous 4th birthday cake.

Yun Zi’s fabulous 4th birthday cake.

Cake designers
For the last four weeks, everyone in the Nutritional Services Department assisted in the making of Bai Yun’s cake. We all helped in the actual process of putting all the cake layers together, but each person added a special touch. Jazmin Valdez has a steady hand and great penmanship for piping the names on the plaque. Deborah Lowe, Nutritional Services supervisor, designed the Celebration Toast ice cake. Debbie Andrada Tanciatco proposed the idea for using pureed yam as “frosting.” Meghan Kramer provided the color scheme as well as fresh yam and apple stars. Dave Szabo, Nutritional Services manager, and Jimmie Cunningham lent their strength to help carry the behemoth ice block.

For us cake makers, it can be a really daunting process, from making sure the design can be created to the stressful duty of delivering and setting up the cake. We love watching the pandas and our guests enjoying the birthday party. This has become a great team-building project that we take pride in.

Check out the Making of a Panda Cake video to see the whole process!

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Birthday Bonanza for Bai Yun

Champagne "glasses" filled with honey water were part of the treats awaiting Bai Yun on her 22nd birthday.

Champagne “glasses” filled with honey water were part of the treats awaiting Bai Yun on her 22nd birthday.

The San Diego Zoo’s forage team was so excited about giant panda Bai Yun’s 22nd birthday on September 7, 2013, that they offered the pandas the first round of champagne to celebrate…the panda version of champagne, that is. The forage team, in charge of preparing the yummy and nutritious food for residents of the Zoo, worked on Bai’s birthday cake for a whole month. The ice cake stood five feet tall, weighed 215 pounds, was adorned with ice confetti and star-shaped fruit, and was topped with two champagne flutes made from ice and bamboo. The den was adorned with gift boxes filled with cinnamon biscuits (Bai’s favorite) and piñatas in the shape of a shark and a turtle.

One thing is clear after the day’s activities: Bai Yun is a gal who knows what she wants and knows how to get it—the birthday bear went straight for the fresh yams and apples first, meticulously shifting around the ice confetti in search of the hidden little treasures. She then went for the bamboo, grabbing the stalks and taking them right out of the cake for better, more efficient handling.

Like mother, like son!

The names of Bai Yun’s six cubs decorate this ice plaque.

As Bai sat down to enjoy her cake, her cub Xiao Liwu came out to share in the celebration. First he investigated the plaque with the names and birth years of Bai’s six cubs, looked up as if to say “Hey, that’s me,” and then moved right along to plunder the cake with mamma panda. While Mr. Wu was getting a taste of the honey drizzled on the ice, mamma bear went for the honey water in her champagne flutes. The easiest way to do that? Topple the cake over. A horizontal cake meant better accessibility for Mr. Wu, so he climbed atop and enjoyed his mother’s birthday treat from there, as if making it his edible throne of delicious panda snackage.

As heart-meltingly adorable as the pandas are, one of the greatest aspects of these events is the joy it brings the panda fans who come out to wish the bears a happy birthday. I always take a moment to look around at everyone’s face as it lights up when the bears come out; the combination of Bai Yun and Mr. Wu with a huge cake made for a lot of oohs and ahhs. Usually the fan reactions are my absolute favorite moments of the entire day, but this time it was a tie between a human and a bear.

Like mother, like son!

Like mother, like son!

First, the human: Per usual, everyone is clicking away trying to get the cutest shots of the bears frolicking. Let’s face it: it is adorability you just want to share with the world! At one point, the panda duo got together behind the cake, and you could see both of their gorgeous faces through the tiers of the cake, making for one of the best shots imaginable. It was then that the woman next to me, who had a pretty impressive camera and had been shooting away all morning, gently brought the camera down from her face, intently gazed at the bears, and let out a huge sigh. It was as though she was just moved by the sheer majesty of the moment and wanted to completely soak it in, she then brought the camera back up to her face and continued shooting, keeping that special moment between the pandas as a little memento for herself.

Now the bear: Not only did Mr. Wu look adorable while investigating the plaque with the cub names on it, but it also served as a moment of realization. As I stood there and watched him scan the plaque, I thought of the significance of those names, which displayed the incredible impact that his mother has had in her 22 years of life, giving birth to and raising six fine offspring over the years. It was an incredibly special experience to share in the celebration of Bai’s birthday with her legacy displayed on that plaque and part of that legacy bouncing around, enjoying the treat by her side.

Today was a very memorable day for Bai Yun and her cub, who have enjoyed two ice cakes in the past few weeks, the San Diego Zoo keepers who love and care for these animals, the forage team who put together a phenomenal cake, and, of course, the adoring panda fans who shared in the celebration with our wonderful world-famous friends.

Cielo Villaseñor is a public relations representative for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Poised Panda Gets a Party.

Note: Video will be posted when available.

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Party Plans for Bai Yun

Little does Bai Yun know what awaits her!

Little does Bai Yun know what awaits her!

It is just around the corner! On Saturday, September 7, 2013, we will celebrate giant panda Bai Yun’s 22nd birthday! Many of you might remember that last year, on Bai’s big “21,” we were not able to give her a birthday bash as she was nestled away in her bedroom suites taking care of Baby #6, our Xiao Liwu.

We decided this year that we needed to make up for last year and give Bai a big birthday party! Our forage warehouse staff, famous for making our incredible ice cakes, is already hard at work making our girl a very special one. I know what it is going to look like, and I can tell you that the cake will be stupendous!

Steamed, mashed yams are piped onto an ice layer for a decorative touch.

Steamed, mashed yams are piped onto an ice layer for a decorative touch.

As I look back on when Bai arrived here at the San Diego Zoo on September 10, 1996, she was a five-year-old full of wonder and energy. Today, after six cubs, Miss Bai still has “it,” and she continues to delight our guests, especially when she and Mr. Wu decide to have a play bout!

We have learned so much from her over the years. I can proudly say Bai Yun truly is our ambassador for giant panda conservation at the San Diego Zoo. I hope many of you will be able to come to the Zoo’s Panda Trek and help us celebrate our beautiful Bai’s 22nd birthday. The cake will be set out around 8:30 a.m. and the birthday girl and her cub will be out to see it starting at 8:45 a.m. for Panda Cam viewers. It will certainly be a festive event!

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Pandas: The Transition.

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Pandas: The Transition

Xiao Liwu rests against his pillow as he plays Big Boy Panda with bamboo.

Xiao Liwu rests against his pillow as he plays Big Boy Panda with bamboo.

Giant panda Bai Yun and her now 8-month-old cub, Xiao Liwu, are slowly making the transition to their new enclosure in the main viewing area of the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Trek. The restless behaviors you may have seen from Bai Yun are absolutely normal during this transition period. We keepers are aware of how the changes can affect the bears, because I’ve seen Bai Yun go through this with EACH of her cubs.

For Bai Yun, the space is not new to her, as she has lived in this enclosure for many years. However, she has a new cub to care for now, and the scent of the previous resident, Gao Gao, is still strong in that enclosure. Although Gao Gao has been her mate and is the father of this cub, that matters not at all to her. In her mind, a male is in the area, and it could mean danger for her cub. As his scent dissipates, she will settle down.

For Mr. Wu, everything is new! The main viewing enclosures give our guests a closer look at the pandas, but they are also closer to the road, so there are new sounds to get used to. The cub’s new space is about the same size as his previous one, but it is shaped differently: it is longer and not as deep. There are lots of new things for the little guy to explore, and taller trees to climb! Cubs at this age do spend a LOT of time in the tallest tree they can find; in the wild, this makes good survival sense, as they would be safe from predators while Mom foraged. Xiao Liwu doesn’t have to worry about those predators here, but the instinct to climb is still strong.

As keepers, we continue to take steps to ease this transition time. We make sure we offer bamboo that is to Bai Yun’s liking whenever possible, we add various enrichment items with each feeding, and we continue to keep the access to her bedroom open, so mother and cub can retreat off exhibit any time they want to do so. Please be patient, this phase of unrest will soon pass!

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

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Pandas: When One Door Closes

A 22-day-old cutie!

Giant panda Bai Yun has continued to lengthen her absences from the den. The primary reason for this is that she is now eating much more than she was a week ago. For her first few den departures, she would be gone only long enough to grab a drink and perhaps eliminate waste. Now she is taking time to feed herself. This morning, I watched her wolf down a pile of biscuits like nobody’s business! See below for video of the cub during this time.

Her cub has gotten used to her absences. For much of the time Bai Yun is out, the youngster will rest in the den or move about gently on the floor, croaking quietly. No more flailing and screaming while Momma is away. While Bai Yun ate biscuits today, the cub did emit a few squawks, a vocalization of higher intensity than croaks. Despite this, our girl continued to feed. Clearly, she was unconcerned about a few complaints from the cub.

Keepers have begun to test interactions with Bai Yun at the gate of her sun room. When she is out feeding, the keeper approaches the mesh of the door and gently calls to her. Bai Yun can choose to interact or not. If she does, the keeper hand feeds her with a steady drip of apples and carrots. The object is to see how long Bai Yun is comfortable focusing on the keeper. It also demonstrates to us that Bai Yun is emerging from the solitude of her den world and is ready to move toward a more regular husbandry routine.

Once Bai Yun appears comfortable with these interactions, the next step is to close the door between her bedroom and sun room, effectively limiting her access to the den. Today I watched as one keeper held her attention at the door while another slowly inched the door closed. Bai Yun glanced at the door as it shut but returned her focus to the keeper and her treats. The door remained closed for two minutes and was then opened again. Our girl did great, staying calm and relaxed through the whole experience. In fact, even though the door was open to her, Bai Yun remained in the sun room for a few minutes more before returning to the den.

Once the keepers are able to keep Bai Yun calm and relaxed for 5 to 10 minutes, we will be ready for our first cub exam. As one keeper holds Bai Yun in the sun room with treats, another keeper will enter the bedroom through a different door and retrieve the cub from the den. The first few exams will be very brief, lasting only a few minutes. This will ensure that we can ease both mother and cub into the regular pattern of cub exams that will occur for the next year of this youngster’s life.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Pandas: You Asked, We Answer.

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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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Who You Calling Old?

Bai Yun was more interested in eating a few months ago.

Giant panda Bai Yun is getting along in years, now 20 years old and on the tail-end of the known breeding spectrum for giant pandas. We’ve been telling you for some time that we don’t know what effect her age might have on the ability for her to breed and produce a cub in 2012. Apparently, Bai Yun did not get the uncertainty memo, because she is now showing strong signs of estrus.

For a few weeks, she has been off her regular bamboo-feeding pattern. In the last few days, her bamboo consumption has dropped precipitously. In addition, she has kicked into high gear with scent marking and restless locomotion. When I observed her this morning, she was scent marking at a rate of once per minute when awake. Considering that a typical non-estrus day might have one or two scent marks in 24 hours, this is a pretty significant increase.

Our research on the typical behavioral expression of estrus has shown that a female panda begins by increasing her rate of scent marking and then decelerates marking before becoming vocal. That is to say: first she focuses on laying down scent along her wandering path to advertise her condition to males that might wander across her home range. Then, when she is ready to mate, she begins to call the male(s), which start tracking her closely once they read her chemical messages.

I didn’t hear any vocalizations from Bai Yun this morning, but that isn’t surprising. She’s still in the advertising stage. You can see her in relatively constant motion throughout the day as she traverses her exhibit laying down scent. One byproduct: with all her restless energy and decrease in feeding, we can expect to see a slight decrease in her weight over the next few weeks. Not to worry: after her hormones settle back down, she will focus on packing on the pounds she loses during estrus.

A note about timing: Bai Yun hasn’t had a breeding date in March since 2003. However, she is clearly on track to peak this month. We are still not certain we will accomplish a breeding with our older pair, but I can say that even Gao Gao seems ready to go, with increased scent marking and restlessness characteristic of a male in rut. All signs point to a likely pairing, and well before April.

So Bai Yun is pushing the boundaries. Although her behavior thus far doesn’t guarantee a breeding or a pregnancy or a live birth, the age factor hasn’t stopped her from having a strong, early estrus. Perhaps her long years of great nutritional and veterinary care are paying off. Is Bai Yun younger than her calendar years? Who can say? Cast your bets.

Just don’t call her old.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Pandas Play Peek-a-boo.

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Pandamonium

Bai Yun inhales a tantalizing scent.

Zoo InternQuest is a career exploration program for high school students. For more information see the Zoo InternQuest blog. For more photos see the Zoo InternQuest Photo Journal.

At the San Diego Zoo, there is one animal that has always stolen the show – the giant panda.  People from all over the world are infatuated with the pandas at the San Diego Zoo, and we got the chance to get a behind-the-scenes view of all the “panda-monium.”

We met with Suzanne Hall, a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, for a tour of the Giant Panda Research Station.

If you’ve ever been to the Zoo, you’ve probably passed by the Panda Research Station billions of times and never thought of what goes on inside, but believe me, a lot does.  It takes a lot of educated and passionate people to conserve a species, and Ms. Hall is the epitome of a passionate individual who strives for change. When asked to describe her job, she said, “We are the science of saving species” and after telling us all about her job, there was no denying it.

Ms. Hall’s focus is on bears and their specific behaviors. From observing animals in their natural environment to writing blogs about the animals, Ms. Hall is incredibly invested in her job.  A big part of her job revolves around the study of animals’ behaviors and recording them and then applying her knowledge. So we could experience a day in the life of a research technician, Ms. Hall gave us a small ethogram (a table of different types of behaviors) allowing us to see what tools she and her colleagues work with. She showed us a video of Keesha, a sloth bear, and asked us to record what we saw based on the previously given ethogram codes. We only watched and recorded behaviors from a two-minute video, which is miniscule compared to the hours that research technicians spend observing animals. I really enjoyed observing animals, and it was exciting to see what a day in the life of a research technician is like.

Right now, Ms. Hall is focusing on sun bears and educated us about the challenges they face, as well as the steps the Institute is taking to help them.  According to Ms. Hall, sun bears are incredibly likely to go extinct due to the recent decline of their habitat by 30 percent.  Researchers have been studying sun bear cub behaviors at the San Diego Zoo and hope to compare their observations to orphaned sun bears in Borneo. The goal of this research is to provide some insight on the behavior and survival of orphans in the wild. It’s also important to have animals in managed-care facilities so there is a self-sustaining breeding population in the case that something happens to the animals in the wild. These animals play a crucial role in educating visitors about the species and why they are so important to the environment. They also allow for research to be conducted to aid a population in the wild.

To learn more about her job, Ms. Hall gave us an exclusive tour of the Giant Panda Research Station. She spends most of her time with the animals, but when she’s not there, she is writing blog posts as well. She led us through the building and to the main food source for the pandas, the bamboo refrigerator. Most of the bamboo fed to the pandas is grown on Zoo and Safari Park grounds, and considering the size of the bamboo refrigerator, that’s a lot!

After learning so much about pandas, we went into the exhibit viewing area to observe and learn about the specific pandas. One of the pandas, Bai Yun, has been with the Zoo since 1996! Ms. Hall talked to us about how all the Zoo animals are given enrichment objects to stimulate natural behaviors. Researchers are able to identify which objects the animal favors, as well as observe how they interact with the objects. Bai Yun’s favorite enrichment items include kitchen spices and perfumes. She prefers pumpkin pie spice and Polo cologne, and she actually covers herself with it!

It was really exciting to be able to experience a completely different side of the pandas by understanding what methods are being employed to study their behavior, as well as talking to a professional about her job. From now on I’ll never view the panda exhibit the same way!

Katherine, Real World Team (week 2)

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Bai Yun: Hero Mother

Bai Yun rubs fragrance on her face.

As you know, we have watched giant panda Bai Yun closely over the last few months to see how she progressed throughout this birthing season. This effort involved keepers recording daily information about changes to her eating habits, behavior, and physiology. It involved San Diego Zoo veterinarians, who performed several ultrasounds a week to document the changes in Bai Yun’s uterus. It involved our reproductive physiologists, who monitored her hormone changes and used thermal imaging to assess the heat profiles of her abdomen. And it involved behavior researchers assessing the daily check sheets and watching time-lapse video of her denning activities.

In the end, our Panda Team has come to the conclusion that Bai Yun will not be giving birth this year.

We did see some positive signs in July, when there was evidence of uterine changes via ultrasound, and Bai Yun slowed down and left large portions of her daily feed untouched. She started using the den and built a small nest. As time wore on, we were not able to visualize a fetus or fetal heartbeat, and this left us to wonder: Was there a fetus in there somewhere that we just weren’t able to capture on ultrasound? Or was there a pregnancy somehow thwarted before it even got going?

At this point, Bai Yun’s hormones have returned to baseline. Her uterus is declining from its swollen state. Her appetite is on the increase, and her time spent in the den has become minimal. She will obviously not be giving birth this year. And we will never really know why. Bai Yun is, after all, on the outside edge of the range of known breeding ages for female pandas. Perhaps she is done, for good, and is physiologically ready to experience “maternal retirement.” Or perhaps her body simply needed to take a year off. Either way, we are okay with that.

In the next few days, you can expect to see Bai Yun given more opportunities to roam the area as she chooses. For the moment, she hasn’t seemed to want to stretch her legs very much, but we know that will change soon. She will want to climb trees and eat for hours and will become more responsive to the keepers’ attempts to shift her. Look for her atop the climbing structure in the north exhibit, or drinking from the pond in that yard, in the next week or so.

What’s in store for Bai Yun? In the short term, cub or no cub, you can be sure that our staff will continue to dote on her and meet all of her needs. She still is, after all, our own “hero mother.”

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Pregnancy: Detection.

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Bai Yun’s Changing Moods

Yun Zi: A happy result of Bai Yun's last mood swing season!

The San Diego Zoo is full of the promise of spring, and our female giant panda Bai Yun is dealing with changing hormone levels. Bai Yun really doesn’t have a “normal” day right now, and there is no set schedule to her activities or direct reason for it! There are days when Bai Yun is peacefully sleeping  and really doesn’t want to do anything, days when she eats non-stop and can’t seem to get enough of her bamboo, and days where she doesn’t seem to know what she wants and doesn’t want anyone to bother her.

The scent marking and different moods she presents to her audience also fluctuate with those days. During this time we do our best to observe those behaviors, and our giant panda research team has this down to a science. However “off” she might be on some days, she has been fantastic at letting our reproductive physiologist and vets collect vaginal swabs, and she has been great at supplying urine samples for our keepers to collect. Often when I talk to our guests about how much we do during Bai Yun’s breeding season, they laugh and can’t believe that we go do so much for a “bear.” Smiling in return, I remind them how successful we’ve been at not only breeding our bears but understanding their cycles and knowing their timeline.

Yes, it’s a lot of work, and some days our keepers are running around getting other work done and can’t always watch the bears as often as they’d like to do. The great thing about our team at the Giant Panda Research Station is that we panda narrators help where we can, even if it’s something as simple as watching how long the pandas eat or counting how many times they scent mark in an hour.

We will do our best to keep you all updated on our progress with the bears, but we can’t offer an exact date of when or if they will breed. There are times where they surprise us as well!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the Zoo. Read her previous post, Gao Gao Gets Ready.