panda cub exam


Panda Exam: Behind the Scenes

Diagnosis: Acute Cuteness!

Diagnosis: Acute Cuteness!

I was privileged to attend panda cub Xiao Liwu’s exam Wednesday morning, January 30, my first ever, and I’m sure I will always remember my close encounter with Bai Yun’s Little Gift. I’d love to share this experience with all of you!

The exam was scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. I arrived early (naturally!) and greeted our photographer, Ken, videographer, Maria, and members of the Panda Team. A large piece of thin carpet had been laid down in the keeper work area where the panda cub exams are held, and a Kong toy, small plastic ball, leafy bamboo, a small log, and an apple slice were all in place, just as I’ve seen in the exam videos. I looked directly into the eyes of Matt Kinney, the attending veterinarian, and asked him to please make sure the six-month-old cub was fine after the many falls and tumbles he has taken. Panda fans want to know! See video below to  hear Matt’s findings.

At this time, Bai Yun was already out in the north exhibit, eating her bamboo breakfast, but the cub had been held back in the off-exhibit bedroom area for the exam. At 8:30, panda keeper Beth opened the door to the bedroom, scooped up the cutie, and placed him on the scale in the bedroom to get his weight. She called out his weight: 19.4 pounds (8.8 kilograms), and then carried him into the exam room. I gasped in delight when I saw him in her arms: Xiao Liwu in the flesh/fur/cuteness! My very first thought was how roly-poly he looked. My eyes got wet, but I tried to remain calm.

Our nutritionist, Jennifer, had been delayed, but Dr. Matt got right to work with the physical exam, as the team didn’t know how long Mr. Wu would be cooperative. The cub’s eyes, mouth, heart, body condition, and more were all checked, but I found myself watching (envying!) keeper Beth scratch and scritch the active cub to keep him in one place and keep those curious claws and teeth away from our doctor. Xiao Liwu seemed to love every minute of attention! He enjoyed the apple and grabbed onto the ball, but ignored that bamboo stuff and log. Yet the cub was silent throughout—didn’t make one peep the entire time!

I asked Ken to take some photos of Xiao Liwu’s paws, as so many fans have wondered if those paws are webbed like father Gao Gao’s. I wanted proof that they are not! Ken obliged, and I saw just a barely visible patch of gray fur on each hind leg. I tried to look for his black tail tip, but the cub kept his tail curled up. I was amazed at how close Ken and Maria were able to get with their cameras without bothering the special boy one bit!

And then, Jennifer arrived and handed me a clipboard: I was to jot down the measurements she took! That’s right: I would be doing something useful! I got to get down at cub level next to (not on) the carpet so I could hear Jennifer call out the different numbers (13 different measurements in all!). By then, Xiao Liwu was eager to explore more of the carpet. He came right over to me and TOUCHED THE CLIPBOARD WITH HIS NOSE! Now, I have a confession. Many of you were hoping I would have the chance to touch the cub and whisper sweet nothings in his ear, and I certainly could have at this point, but I did not. Why? It was such an honor to be there, to be this close, and I wanted to respect him as he was. It’s hard to explain! He was so near that I could SEE what he would feel like: a very coarse-haired chubby panda cub. It doesn’t get much better than that. Just the fact that he came over to me (and my clipboard) was all I needed to feel fulfilled (why are my eyes getting wet as I write this?). I hope you all understand.

Xiao Liwu was so unfazed by the whole exam thing, but we’ve promised guests that our little panda star can be seen on exhibit daily at 9 a.m. With a sigh, I watched as he willingly followed Beth back into the bedroom. From there, he continued ambling through the tunnel system and right on out to the exhibit, where I could see Bai Yun STILL munching on her bamboo but facing that door, as if watching for her cub’s arrival. I hear he feel asleep soon after!

I stayed behind to ask the Panda Team some of the many questions panda fans sent in, and I will share the answers in a future post. Right now, I’m still on a panda cub high!

Debbie Andreen is an editor and blog moderator for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: Last Exam?

Click to enlarge chart

Click to enlarge chart


Panda Cub: Last Exam?

Xiao Liwu sits atop the "mini-Keebler" to survey his territory.

Xiao Liwu sits atop the “mini-Keebler” to survey his territory.

Our Zoo photographer, Ken Bohn, took such a cute photo of panda cub Xiao Liwu today that we just had to share it with his many fans. The 5½-month old cub has been perfecting his tree-climbing skills, much to the fascination (and horror!) of Panda Cam viewers. We know it looks scary and he could/will fall, but this is all part of learning to be a panda. Soon, Xiao Liwu will spend most of his time high up in a tree, just as he would in the wild to stay safe from predators while his mother forages for food.

Xiao Liwu’s exams are coming to a close, as he is a growing bear, and we want to treat him as such. But we do have an exam scheduled for next week. Our photographer and videographer will be there to record what may be his last exam as a cub, and guess who else will be there—ME!

Yes, after moderating panda (and other) blogs for all these years, I finally have the privilege of attending my very first panda cub exam. I am beyond excited and getting goosebumps as I write this! I promise to write about the exam in excruciating detail. I want to share my joy with all of you, our faithful blog readers! If you have a question you’d like me to ask the attending veterinarian, please let me know in the comment section. One question I’ll be sure to ask: Is Mr. Wu still fine after all of the tumbles he has taken? I’m confident the answer will be a resounding “yes,” but it’s always nice to hear it from an expert.

And rest assured that I will tell Xiao Liwu how much he is loved by all of you. I may even blow him a kiss—don’t tell Bai Yun!

Debbie Andreen is an editor and blog moderator for San Diego Zoo Global.

Adopt a panda for your Valentine!


Panda Cub: Exam 18

It’s mine! You can’t have it!

Today was our 18th cub exam, and while it’s hard to believe that Xiao Liwu gets cuter with every exam, inevitably he does! Every week. Without fail. I don’t know how he’s going to keep this up…being this cute for this long, it must take a lot of endurance.

This morning, to up the cute factor, he was given two balls, bamboo, and a limb trimmed from a tree. He’d seen the limb before, and the bamboo, but that ball…that is what kept his attention during the whole exam. He pulled it close, wrapped all his paws around it, and sat with it. It was his, and he wasn’t giving it up. Well, until he tried to climb over it or move with it, and then it would pop out of his paws and roll away. Keepers would roll it back to him and this “game” kept him engaged during almost the entire exam.

Jennifer Parsons, a nutritionist taking his measurements, had to slide her tape measure between the ball and his chin to measure his neck girth. And again, between the ball and his tummy to measure the girth of his abdomen. And while he was wrapped, content, around that ball, she was able to take measurements around his face without his usual protests. He weighed 14.5 pounds (6.6 kilograms) and is 29 inches long (74 centimeters) from nose to tail.

The exam went very quickly today because the cub was focused on his ball. Vets were able to check him over and everything looked in tip-top shape.

And because I know you’d want to know, I asked about Xiao Liwu’s public debut. And the animal care staff tell me that it boils down to this: he has to be able to climb, and he has to follow his mother consistently.

The cub has shown a slight interest in one of the small climbing structures in the sun room but hasn’t tried out any other climbing in the garden room. And right now, he’s more than content to stay in the den when Bai Yun ventures into other areas of the “panda suite” they share. This is a natural instinct in bear cubs: staying close to their mother is what keeps them safe in the wild. At the San Diego Zoo, staying close to mother is what makes it possible for keepers to get Mom and baby into and out of the exhibit.

So we wait.

Good thing he’s so dang cute!

Jenny Mehlow is a senior public relations representative for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Panda Cub Exam 5: Say Aww.


Live-Tweeting Exam 17

This morning was by far one of the coolest moments of my career here at San Diego Zoo Global. No wait, one of the coolest moments OF MY LIFE. After months of fawning over adorable photo after adorable video, I was finally able to meet our little celebrity panda cub in person! And let me tell you, Xiao Liwu lives up to all the hype. I didn’t think it was possible, but he’s even cuter in real life.

So why was I there? To tweet, of course! As the social media guy, that’s what I do best, and boy did I tweet. This morning was our first ever up-close live tweeting of a panda cub exam, and I’m proud to have been part of it. In case you missed my tweets, I’ll give you a play by play.

When I first arrived at the exam room, our brilliant photographer Ken Bohn and equally brilliant videographer Maria Bernal-Silva were all suited up and ready for the cub to arrive. I was hanging in one corner of the room along with panda staff, and there was a bit of an anxious vibe as we waited for the exam to begin.

When keepers brought Xiao Liwu in, a hush fell over the room, which was soon replaced by giggles and squeals as Liwu squirmed all around. He was a little wet and muddy from the rain, as was expected, but he was bigger and more vigorous than ever.

Some bamboo leaves and a little tree log were placed on the exam room floor for Liwu to play with, but he showed little interest. He kept trying to crawl to other areas of the exam room, but he did stop for a second to mouth some bamboo that was offered to him.

Believe it or not, in between all the swooning some real science actually occurs. The Panda Team performs all kinds of physical diagnostics to ensure our little man is thriving. During some measurements, Xiao decided to entertain us with a panda “headstand.”

The exam was over before I knew it. It ended so fast, and it was such an unreal experience, that it’s almost like it didn’t even happen—like I dreamed it. But it happened, and I’m incredibly honored to have experienced it.

It was not only a pleasure to be around Mr. Adorable himself but to experience the inner workings of our panda conservation program firsthand and to be a brief part of the incredible conservation work that our team does. I am forever in awe of our Panda Team’s passion and dedication to saving this endangered species.

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global.

Note: Xiao Liwu weighed 14 pounds (6.4 kilograms) this morning and measured 27.5 inches (70 centimeters) long.

Click on image to enlarge.


Exam 12: Confident and Curious

Keeper Liz carries the 100-day-old cub.

Today’s panda exam found our black-and-white bundle of joy full of energy and with a new sense of confidence! His steadily increasing mobility, along with his confidence, made the cub seem more curious about all the people and cameras here for his weekly exam than in the past. There were two of us keepers sharing the amazing privilege of assisting the veterinarian and nutritionist for his exam. Liz helped with weighing the cub (4.2 kilograms or 9.2 pounds) and the veterinary portion of his exam, while I assisted the nutritionist taking his measurements.

During his exam we often observed him crawling and even taking a few steps toward someone or a camera. A couple of times he looked up at me with an alertness I hadn’t seen before and then crawled closer. Talk about a melt-your-heart moment! Of course, even with his new sense of confidence, he wasn’t afraid to make his voice heard. His wonderful mother, Bai Yun, heard it all but didn’t show any sense of concern as she ate her breakfast in her sunroom.

Once the exam was over, and I returned the cub to his den and exited the area, returning access to Bai Yun. He got up, crawled to the edge, and rolled out, perhaps not ready for his adventure to end or to look for his mom. Maybe some Panda Cam viewers were lucky enough to see what happened next: he turned around to try to get back into the den, placed his front paws on the short ledge, and tried to pull himself up, but no luck. Fortunately, Mom was right there and ever-so-gently placed her paw on his bottom for a little boost. We are all confident that he won’t need that boost from Mom much longer!

Jennifer Chapman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, My Moment With our Black and White Celebrity.

Note: Photos from today’s exam are now posted on our Panda Photo Gallery. Enjoy!

Click on chart to enlarge


Panda Exam 9: Crawling

Keeper Juli brings in the bright-eyed boy.

Today, keeper Juli and I got to work with the cub during his 9th exam. I had not held the cub since exam #2, and he has grown significantly since then. It is amazing and a privilege to watch his daily milestones.

Now 11 weeks old, he is 21.6 inches (55 centimeters) long and weighs 7.2 pounds (3.3 kilograms), which is the same weight as last week, but he is more active now, climbing out of the den by himself. PK Robbins, the attending veterinarian, did notice that his little canines are starting to come in under his gums, and he is starting to get a spot on his tail.

Jennifer enjoys her special time with the cub.

This little guy definitely loves the camera, as he was trying to crawl toward our Zoo photographer, during the entire exam, raising one front paw, followed clumsily by the other. PK said it was “like a toddler holding onto the furniture.” His physical development is on track for a panda his age. He is just starting to stand up on all four paws and is working on his balance.

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Cub Exam 3.

View more images from today’s exam in our Panda Photo Gallery.

Click chart to enlarge.


Panda Cub: Exam 6

Hello, world!

Today our little panda boy had his sixth exam. This was especially exciting for me, as it was MY first panda cub exam. Our chubby cubbie weighed in at 5.8 pounds (2.64 kilograms)—almost a pound more than last week. It is amazing how quickly this little guy is growing!

Our little buddy was a teeny bit fussy at the beginning of the exam, but a few chin scratches later he was sleeping like a baby. Baby panda boy received his first vaccination today as well. He was a super star and didn’t make a sound during the injection.  What a brave little man he is!

Holding the cub for the first time was a truly amazing experience for me- he is so fluffy and strong!  Although he may look helpless and fragile in the den, let me assure you that this baby panda is a little tank. Mom and baby are bonding more and more every day. Mom Bai Yun plays with her little baby, spinning him around and carrying him out to her bedroom on a regular basis now.  Although this play can look rough at times, this is perfectly normal for a panda mom and baby.  Our little guy is strong, and Bai Yun is an experienced mother who has successfully raised five cubs already. Soon enough our little guy will be up and running around. In fact, we have seen him practicing his crawling skills recently!

I can’t wait to see our little star out on exhibit this winter.

Elizabeth Simmons is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

More images can be found in our Panda Gallery.

Click to enlarge chart.


Pandas: Me Time

Hi, panda fans! I can almost see you.

For most of the last week, panda mother Bai Yun has been given access to her garden room at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station throughout the day. She hasn’t really been out there much, though we have noticed her sitting in her sunroom and looking out to the grassy garden floor. It’s as if she is toying with the idea of exploring, but not yet sure if she should indulge herself.

We offer garden room access because it is the natural progression for a postpartum panda to need more time away from her cub, not because she tires of caring for her youngster, but because nature requires this of her. A wild panda isn’t provided with high calorie, nutrient-dense biscuits, yams, and carrots each day. Instead, she must rely on the nutrition provided by bamboo, which is comparatively nutrient and calorie poor. As her appetite comes back online from her postpartum fast, and the energy drain of lactating for an increasingly hungry youngster take its toll, mother panda must spend more and more time out of the den meeting her dietary needs.

Of course, Bai Yun is not a wild panda, and she does benefit from regular feedings by her keepers. She can count on twice daily provisioning of the best bamboo we have to offer, and a nice pile of supplemental foods to boot. She doesn’t have to wander far or be gone long to meet her needs. But she still seems to have that drive to be out of the den, away from the cub, for periods of the day. Surely those among us with children of our own can relate to the need for a little “me time”?

And so we have offered Bai Yun her garden room. In the past, once she determines that it is time, she will move outside during the day and rest atop her platform. She seems to enjoy the breeze, the sunshine, and the opportunity to interact with her keepers. Bai Yun is still very close to the den and can easily hear the cub should it vocalize a need. But there is something about emerging from the darkness of the den into the light of a warm fall afternoon that seems to be of value to Bai Yun.

At the moment, she’s taking that emergence slowly. Today, after the morning cub exam, she chose to lie down in the bedroom, a few feet from the den. She was actually napping with her head hanging out into the sunroom. This absence wasn’t driven by hunger; she just wanted to be out of the den for a bit. She is beginning to seek that “me time” at her own pace. We expect that over the coming week or two we will see her explore that garden room and settle in atop her favorite platform in the corner.

Speaking of the cub exam, our staff managed to get their hands on the little guy in the den this morning. With an abdominal girth of 12 inches (30.5 centimeters), and a length of 16 inches (41.5 centimeters), you can understand why he reminds me of a sausage: he’s nearly as big around as he is long! Historically, however, he is not our heaviest cub thus far at 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms). So he’s a petite sausage, I suppose.

Mei Sheng started out a little lighter than his sisters but became one of our larger cubs after several months. Whether or not our newest panda cub will follow in his eldest brother’s footsteps remains to be seen.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Cub Gets Keeper Comfort.

View more photos in our Panda Gallery…

Click to enlarge



Panda Cub Exam 3

Our boy is 39 days old. What a heartbreaker he is!

Veterinarian Meg Sutherland-Smith confirmed it’s a boy for proud parents Bai Yun and Gao Gao!

We had the cub’s third exam this morning. Animal Care Supervisor Gaylene was the lucky keeper to pick up the chubby cub this week while Bai Yun was happily eating her breakfast of bamboo, biscuits, apples, yams, and carrots. The little cub now weighs 3.2 pounds (1,452 grams), 14 ounces (400 grams) more than last week! The cub was very calm during all his measurements, which were taken by our nutritionist.

We are all very excited to know that the cub is a boy. That is three girls and three boys for mother Bai Yun.

Jen Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Yun Zi: Favorite Cues.

See more exam photos in our Panda Gallery.

Click to enlarge.



Cub Gains Muscle

Yesterday I sat in on one of the last of Yun Zi’s exams before he goes on public exhibit. We were hosting a reporter from the local newspaper, and I warned her ahead of time that as cool as you try to be in the presence of a panda cub, there’s a little part of you that is sure to melt.

For me, I mentally prepared myself not to speak in baby talk, but inevitably I let out a “oh!” when the keepers set him down for the exam and announced his weight: 19.4 pounds (8.8 kilograms).

Beth Bicknese, the senior veterinarian, and Kathy Hawk, the senior keeper, needed all four of their hands to keep hold of Yun Zi’s four paws this morning. To try to keep him occupied, Kathy kept half of an apple in her hand for the cub to smell, taste, and explore. And that worked for about 40 seconds. After that, he was trying to crawl in any direction that would free him from their attention.

Throughout the exam I had a huge smile on my face because there, just 3 feet from me, was a panda cub. *Sigh*

The keepers had set out a large piece of carpet to use as their examining area, but Yun Zi seemed to want to be anywhere but there. During earlier exams, keepers could set him down and he’d stay put – sometimes even falling asleep during the exam – but long gone are those days. Keepers could check about one area of the cub’s body before he’d wiggle away from them and crawl off. It was a constant battle of wills this morning.

He kept making low squeals or yips while Beth and Kathy inspected him. Beth started at the top of his head with a check of his eyes and ears and then worked down his little panda body. They noted that he had more teeth than he had at the last exam, and they could feel his muscles. Yun Zi has been climbing a lot more in the past few weeks and turning what was just some extra mass into muscle.

While he continued to yip, I was sure to have Beth check out his tail; that little black spot is still there. I have to say he wasn’t looking too white today—more of a pinkish/reddish color. Beth explained that this coloring is because of Bai Yun’s grooming. In addition to bamboo, Bai Yun eats a type of biscuit that contains beetroot. The red of the biscuit turns Yun Zi’s white fur a bit pinkish. So precious!

Because of the constant wiggling, crawling, and efforts to get away, the exam was short and sweet. At one point, keepers allowed Yun Zi to just crawl off in the direction of his choice, which was back toward the den. And with that we ended the exam! Of course I could have stayed there all day to watch him crawl around the room exploring the area, but it was best that he get back to Mom, who was up and ready for breakfast.

This is the last of the weekly exams for Yun Zi, and the San Diego Zoo has concluded videotaping and photographing the exams. Keepers are synchronizing Bai Yun’s feeding times with the hours that Yun Zi is awake to increase the chances that Mom will bring – and keep – baby on exhibit.

So soon you’ll be able to have your own first-hand experience of watching roly-poly Yun Zi!

Jenny Mehlow is a public relations representative for the San Diego Zoo.

Update: Due to the holidays, we have fewer Panda Cam volunteers operating the cameras. This means there are long periods when the camera is unmanned, and keepers are the only ones around to adjust the image for you. However, as you know, the keepers are very busily engaged in the care of our five pandas, other animals, research, and other keeper activities. They aren’t able to check on the camera frequently. When they do, they find a good image of a bear for you and then walk away for another period of caring for animals. For this reason, you may not see any particular panda (including Yun Zi) for some time.

Additionally, there will be times when the bear walks out of the frame and you see no animal (particularly overnight). Please do not worry. All of the bears are fine. This is a normal evolution of this process: once a cub leaves the den, he/she becomes much like any other panda here and will share the camera time with his/her family. The camera is not focused on the den nonstop, because the cub just isn’t there as often as when he was younger. Once his time there falls off precipitously, the den will be closed to him for good, just like with any of our other cubs.

CUB DEBUT UPDATE: Yun Zi’s public debut is set for Thursday, January 7. A special outdoor exhibit (the “classroom”) will be open for Zoo guests from 9 a.m. to noon, although there is no guarantee that Yun Zi will be in the yard at that time! Guest access to the classroom will be for just a few hours each morning during the next few weeks. You can continue to see Yun Zi’s siblings, Su Lin and Zhen Zhen, in their enclosures.

San Diego Zoo Panda Cub Comparisons
Hua Mei, day 146:
18.95 lbs (8.6 kg); 31 in (78.8 cm) long

Mei Sheng, day 148:
17.7 lbs (8 kg); 32 in (81.4 cm) long

Su Lin, day 147:
15.6 lbs (7 kg); 30.9 in (78.5 cm) long

Zhen Zhen, day 146:
17.4 lbs (7.9 kg); 30.3 in (77 cm) long

Yun Zi, day 146:
19.4 lbs (8.8 kg); 30.6 in (77.7 cm) long