In August of 1999, Bai Yun, gave birth to her first cub Hua Mei as a result of artificial insemination from Shi Shi, the first male in our breeding program. As the very first giant panda cub to survive in the US, Hua Mei was a new adventure for our care staff and veterinarian team. Our nursery staff was on standby, but day after day, Bai Yun amazed us with her attentiveness to and care of her cub. Hua Mei was a typical, curious cub that became playful with her mother as she grew. The world watched her grow and fell in love with her—and her mom—via Panda Cam.
Gao Gao, our current breeding male, came to San Diego in 2003. He had never bred before and was a bit smaller than we anticipated, but Gao Gao rose to the challenge, and we had our first successful mating followed by another successful live birth on August 3, 2003. Named Mei Sheng, the first male cub for Bai Yun kept up with Hua Mei in weight in the beginning, even though he was a little smaller measurement-wise—different paternal genes can make a difference in size of an animal. Personality-wise, Mei Sheng was a little more clingy to his mom than Hua Mei, but he also had a goofy side. I remember when I first started working in Panda Canyon, he would sometimes hang upside down from tree limbs and swing. He was great fun to watch and was always putting on a great show for guests.
Our next panda cub, Su Lin, was born in 2005. She was one of our smaller kiddos, and I would definitely call her an “old soul.” She was pretty mellow, and sometimes seemed more sensitive to environmental change. Su Lin was the first cub trained to be part of the giant panda hearing study. Su Lin ended up staying at the Zoo until she was five years old, and during that time she went through her first estrus. Watching her scent mark her enclosure and even investigate her bedroom for possible denning was always interesting for guests and staff.
The birth of Zhen Zhen in 2007 brought a whole new experience for keepers! Physically, she kept up with Mei Sheng’s weight patterns as she grew, but Zhen Zhen had a little more of a feisty attitude. She had a lot of energy and used it to give Bai Yun a “hard time.” Keepers had to start training to go into her bedroom with mom sooner rather than later because with all of that energy, she would often attempt to roughhouse with keepers when they tried to gather her up to bring her in. As she got older, she still maintained a high-energy personality and was notorious for breaking tree branches from trees while bouncing on them.
An interesting side note: when Su Lin and Zhen Zhen went to China in 2010, we got reports from keepers there that their personalities had switched a bit. Zhen Zhen had mellowed out, while Su Lin now much more sure of herself, was putting on quite high-energy act for staff in China!
In 2009 Yun Zi was born. Nicknamed “Monster” as a little cub, he was ALL boy. He had a “I’m a big, tough bear” attitude even as a young cub. At the time, I was on loan as a panda keeper and was working with him five days a week. In the mornings when we would attempt to get Yun Zi “out of bed”, we would use all the amazing enrichment items that our donors had provided, but nothing seemed to work. In the end, dried leaves were the thing that got him up and moving—he liked chasing them down the tunnel that leads into the exhibit. We had another challenge at the end of each day, when we needed to get him back into the bedroom with mom. On more than one occasion, Yun Zi would be sleeping in the corner of the exhibit and we would have to carry him off exhibit. But as soon as you put him down in the bedroom, he “magically” woke up and began running around! Yun Zi was the biggest cub we have had born here at the Zoo. On more than one occasion, he was more than 2 pounds bigger than his siblings at the same age. Today, living in China, he is over 235 pounds.
And that brings us to the afternoon of July 29, 2012 when a little bear named Xiao Liwu was born. After five kids, Bai Yun was well seasoned for this cub and often when we would watch her you could tell that she was all about letting this kid figure things out for himself. “Wu Bear” has been very independent and what he may have lacked in size he has more than made up for in focus. He has always been a mellow cub, and as keepers have said many times, “They broke the mold after Wu Bear!” When we began training him to cooperate with having his blood pressure taken, he was calm, confident, and extremely relaxed. Not much fazes him, and for the most part—from a keeper’s point of view—he has been the easiest cub to work with.
Xiao Liwu will be turning three years old soon, and with that age comes a whole new set of behaviors and energy bursts. Just the other day, I was watching him put on quite a show for guests, running around and breaking off branches from the bushes in the enclosure. He will continue to be fun to observe and has a very bright future ahead of him—just like his older siblings.
This chart shows Xiao Liwu’s early develoment compared to his siblings. (Click on the image to enlarge.)
Anastasia Jonilionis is a panda narrator and keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Meanwhile, In Panda Canyon.
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