panda gao gao


Panda Bakery


A bowl of panda bread awaits Gao Gao.

Did you know the San Diego Zoo has a bakery for animals? Do the animals like to eat bread with milk or hot chocolate? Well, not exactly, but there is one animal who is eating a special bread—a giant panda!

At the San Diego Zoo, our senior panda Gao Gao has some problems with his teeth, making it hard for him to eat his favorite food—bamboo. To help him continue eating bamboo, we created a type of bread which, of course, includes his favorite item.

Making a yummy bread for Gao Gao is not an easy task. It requires intensive work, commitment, and dedication. The Zoo’s Horticulture department provides the bamboo for the pandas; the Nutritional Services staff, along with keepers and volunteers, spend hours stripping leaves off branches. The leaves are then baked (dried) for 24 hours so they will be crunchy and perfect for the bread. The dried leaves are then ground up. The final product is chunky,
dried pieces of leaves that we call leaf flour.

The leaf flour is delivered to the panda kitchen, where the panda keepers make the bread. Ground primate biscuits are mixed with the leaf flour. Panda keepers adjust the amount of leaf flour they need to add to find the right consistency for the bread. They then add water. However, those ingredients are not enough to keep the dough together. To keep the shape of the bread, unflavored gelatin is added as a key ingredient. The mix is placed in a steamer for 50 minutes.

After all that, the bread is ready to be offered to our elder panda, not only for his enjoyment but to meet his nutritional needs.

Giant pandas are considered specialist animals, meaning their diet is based mainly on one item, in this case, bamboo. If a panda is not able to eat enough bamboo to meet his energy and nutritional requirements, his health can be compromised. The panda bread helps to keep our panda healthy. This daily food item will be part of Gao Gao’s diet for the rest of his life.

Many departments (Horticulture, Nutritional Services, Collections Husbandry Science), volunteers, and sometimes keepers from other Zoo areas (such as the Neonatal Assisted Care Unit), make the effort every day to supply and process the bamboo to keep Gao Gao healthy. Next time you see Gao Gao, think of how fortunate he is to have such dedicated, hard-working staff and volunteers who strive to provide him the best care.

Edith Galindo is a research technician at the San Diego Zoo.


What about Gao Gao?

Gao Gao scratches an itch while relaxing in the north enclosure.

Gao Gao relaxes in the north enclosure.

Now that Bai Yun, Xiao Liwu, and Yun Zi are out in the main panda viewing area, our adult male panda Gao Gao will remain in the back with access to the north enclosure, which is now closed to guests. However, he can be seen on Panda Cam from time to time. What has he been up to these days? Relaxing. Gao Gao has been living the life off exhibit, getting back scratches from the keepers, enjoying his air-conditioned bedrooms, and eating to his little heart’s content. Currently, he weighs 176 pounds (80 kilograms) and is working on training projects with the keepers.

As many of you know, Gao Gao is trained for voluntary blood draws where he actually puts his arm through a metal sleeve and grabs a bar while a veterinarian shaves a patch of his arm and draws blood directly from a vein. Now, Gao Gao is being trained to accept blood pressure testing. He still puts his arm through the metal sleeve for keepers, but now they are able to put an actual blood-pressure cuff on his arm and begin squeezing his arm. Anytime we introduce a new behavior, it is important to take baby steps, but Gao Gao is proving to be a champ and is doing extremely well with this next phase in his training.

As our adult pandas get older, we’d like to get a baseline for their blood pressure. When we had Shi Shi, our previous adult male, we learned quite a bit about panda teeth. We’ve had Gao Gao 10 years now, and he has been trained to do so many other behaviors that help us take care of him, so why not plan for the future?

Bai Yun will also be a part of this training, but probably not while she has the cub with her. As a mom myself, I know that trying to focus on something while you have a kid climbing on you can be challenging!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo.


Big Guy on the Block

Gao Gao is fueling up for breeding season. Little does he know....

Gao Gao is fueling up for breeding season. Little does he know….

As some San Diego Zoo guests are finding out, Gao Gao is the only panda out for viewing in the main exhibit currently (Bai Yun and her cub, Xiao Liwu continue to charm guests in the north exhibit until noon each day). As construction workers continue building Yun Zi’s artificial tree (which looks great so far!), Gao Gao has been entertaining us with his usual eating and sleeping, and a little extra movement right now.

Many of you know that Bai Yun would typically begin showing some hormonal behaviors as early as March for breeding season, and Gao Gao is letting us know that he is ready. He is currently eating more and gaining weight to show off to that gorgeous female he sees once a year. Of course he will not be breeding this year as Bai Yun is with a cub and not cycling. So the big question everyone’s been asking lately is, “What will Gao Gao do?” This year Gao Gao will just have to cope, and soon he’ll realize that he doesn’t smell a female in estrus.

As for next year’s breeding opportunities, we can’t say. To the best of our knowledge there hasn’t been a female panda to give birth over the age of 21, and Bai Yun will be 22 this coming September. We have observed an older male, Shi Shi, but watching a female for her entire breeding life has taught us so much about what is normal for Bai Yun. She is, after all, a big part of Gao Gao’s success as a breeding male—she is responsive and an amazing mother to her offspring.

Come see us soon, but do not be upset if you see Yun Zi off exhibit as his tree is being constructed!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Pandas: The Big Boys.


Pandas: The Big Boys


Life is good for Gao Gao.

As our panda cub is growing and changing on a regular basis, let’s not forget our older boys!

Gao Gao is doing well and has been eating quite a bit. Since he is getting panda bread every day, sometimes our keepers have to spice things up a bit and put either honey or applesauce on the bread to encourage Gao Gao to eat it. The panda bread is made up of bamboo that Gao Gao has rejected from previous meals, ground into a coarse powder, as well as ground leaf eater biscuits, shredded bamboo leaves, gelatin, and water. This is made by our keepers every morning just for Gao Gao and fed out to him throughout the day. Gao Gao’s bamboo is smaller in diameter compared to our other pandas’ diets, and this makes it easier for him to chew and digest.

Yun Zi is doing extremely well and is being a normal three year old. He has had quite a bit of fun scent marking his enclosure. The first few times I saw him leave a scent mark, he would mark the ground, turn around and smell it, and then continue to mark the rest of the enclosure. Of course, eating throughout the day has been a main part of his day; as he is not full grown yet, we may still see him jump up in weight.

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: Growing and Climbing.


Happy 10th Anniversary, Gao Gao

Happy anniversary, Gao Go!

We love Gao Gao!

We are all excited to be celebrating another anniversary for Gao Gao, as this is his 10th year here at the San Diego Zoo. Gao Gao likes his parties to be low-key and with his close human friends. We will be spoiling him with frozen applesauce treats, his favorite smells, and toys. He enjoys cinnamon spice, apple pie spice, and any musky scents. His favorite toys are the ones he can sleep in full of soft bedding.

At 23 years old, Gao Gao is doing quite well for his age. He is weighing a consistent 165 pounds (75 kilograms) and is still climbing like a young panda. He had a dental check up on January 8; they had to replace the bridge on his back molars. We have changed his food preparation to reduce the wear on his teeth and now offer him bamboo bread (made with bamboo ingredients). This is where he is getting most of his calories. We also pre-cut his favorite bamboo stalks into thinner and shorter pieces to make it easier for him to chew.

As to Gao Gao’s famous webbed feet, just his rear paws have the webbing, which is a little longer than the webbing we have between our fingers and is not noticeable unless he has a veterinary exam. He is also famous for the long hair on his rear paws: we call them his slippers.

We are happy for Gao Gao to reach this milestone in his life. He has been an exceptional mate to Bai Yun and is the father of five cubs. He continues to amaze us with how smart he is and with his gentle nature. All of his cubs have followed in his footsteps. And personally, I would say that Xiao Liwu is most like his father. So here’s to 10 great years with Gao Gao and, hopefully, many more to come!

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


New Scents for Pandas

Gao Gao: a panda and his bamboo

The keepers at the San Diego Zoo are dedicated to enriching our animals’ lives and challenging them to exhibit their best abilities on a daily basis. A very common way of exercising our pandas’ sense of smell is to add new smells to their exhibit. Recently, one of the keepers added rosemary powder to the exhibit, and it certainly paid off for our Panda Trek visitors. Yun Zi constantly rolled in the powder and covered his entire body. Not every scent will inspire this same reaction; in fact, if the panda doesn’t like the scent at all, quite often they will completely ignore it and move on to other enrichment in the exhibit.

Keepers are always excited to have new scents and spices to try with their animals. Gao Gao had a lot of fun with apple-pie spice: he wore himself out rolling in it and fell asleep in the spice that the keeper had put out for him. Gao Gao is one of our toughest critics regarding what scents we put out and often shows that he prefers a stronger, rather than subtle, smell.

Yun Zi: How much longer will his hammock last?

Another way our keepers keep the animals busy is changing the exhibit, and sometimes the animals themselves let us know that an object in their exhibit needs to go. On Thursday, December 6, Yun Zi was climbing around on his logs right before his final feeding of the day. He was being his normal, active self, and decided to bounce on part of his climbing structure, breaking the end off! Being a bear, Yun Zi is very good at figuring out how to change things in the exhibit and even move them around. Our keepers have come to know that when cleaning up after Yun Zi, you really don’t know what to expect on a daily basis.

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Nighttime Pandas.

Note: Plans are underway for the installation of Yun Zi’s artificial tree, which many of you helped to fund. That should happen in just a few months!


Hello, Gao Gao

No large bamboo culm for Gao Gao anymore!

After a good recovery from exploratory surgery on October 6, our giant panda Gao Gao is back in the main panda viewing exhibit at the San Diego Zoo and doing very well. For those of you who follow the giant pandas at the Zoo in person or online, I know that there was much anticipation about when he would be back on exhibit. I’m happy to report that he’s doing very well!

Gao Gao spent that first morning roaming his exhibit scenting the walls, trees, and rocks to cover up son Yun Zi’s scent. The first day he really just spent readjusting to being outside for longer periods of time and not having a keeper right outside the door keeping a careful eye on him. In no way was he uncomfortable or uncertain of himself on this first day, and he got back to eating and taking it easy rather quickly.

As I was narrating for panda viewers that morning when he first came out, I watched him and listened for any vocalizations that he would make. I’m happy to report that he really had no stress his first day back, and our guests were so happy to see him. For now he will be eating more leafy bamboo that has a thin stalk, meaning that our keepers are breaking the bamboo into smaller pieces for easy chewing and easy digesting.

We are very happy to have him back on exhibit and encourage you to come take a look over the next few weeks and say hello!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Rain for Pandas.


Gao Gao: Road to Recovery

Bai Yun is in the main viewing area while Gao Gao recovers.

Giant panda Gao Gao has been secluded in the upper portion of the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station as he recovers from his procedure of last Thursday (see post Gao Gao Surgery: Get-Well Wishes). By all accounts, he is doing well. The keepers have fashioned a little nest for him out of hay, and he has used this mattress as his primary resting spot for the last few days. They are keeping a watchful eye on him, and our volunteer observers pulled extra shifts over the weekend to help monitor him as well.

We are noting everything he eats, when he drinks, when he walks about, and when he urinates or defecates. We are pleased to share that he has been eating and has taken to the bamboo bread our nutritionists have been making especially for him. He has passed some stool in the last 24 hours, indicating proper bowel function. And he has been moving around a little, getting out into his sunroom briefly. All of these are positive indicators of a good recovery. So far, so good.

Thankfully, Gao Gao has paid little attention to the stitches in his abdomen. After some initial scratching (they must be itchy!), he has ignored them. In time, they will dissolve and fall out. In the meantime, we are pleased that they do not seem to bother him much.

Although he appears well on the road to recovery, it will be some time before he is deemed fully healed, so you can expect him to remain behind the scenes for a while. We will provide you with regular updates as to his progress. Thank you for all of your well-wishes!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Sun Bear Saga.

Update (October 11, 2011): We appreciate everyone’s concern regarding Gao Gao.  Veterinarians were able to rule out major concerns through the exam performed on October 6.  Although we do not know what was causing the panda’s discomfort, by taking this step to ensure early detection of any serious problem we made sure that there is nothing serious to worry about.


Update (October 20, 2011): Gao Gao is doing very well and has made an impressive recovery after his surgery. He has a great appetite, his weight is good, and he is back to normal activity. We are gradually easing him back into his diet but are also carefully evaluating each step and considering a permanent diet change to better suit age and teeth conditions. We don’t have a date for him being back on exhibit, but that step is in the future plans.


Gao Gao Gets Ready

Yun Zi is bulking up, too, and now weighs 115 pounds!

As we get closer to our hoped-for breeding window, we are seeing some great behavior from giant panda Gao Gao. For the first time in a couple of years I saw him perform a handstand scent mark, and the crowd went wild for it! He also has been eating quite a bit more, which is normal for him at this stage. He is climbing into the tree to take good whiffs of that panda next door. Climbing, in itself, is something different for Gao Gao, since he’s never been much of a climber and really prefers to stay on the ground.

Now that the adult pandas have swapped enclosures, researchers are carefully observing their behavior. As a panda narrator, I can help out by watching the bears and reporting on how many times they scent marked or any behavior or vocalizations that may be important for our research team to know.

For now, Gao Gao continues eating away and gaining weight. (I think he remembers our Bai Yun is a little bigger than he is!) Also, males in the wild would begin to compete for breeding rights with other males at this time of year, and they want to be at their full weight and have enough strength to compete with possibly older, dominant males. Luckily for our Gao Gao, he doesn’t have to compete, but it never hurts to be on your best game and looking your best for a pretty girl!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Yun Zi Keeps Busy.


Gao Gao’s Special Day

Eight years! The time goes by so fast. We just celebrated our Gao Gao’s eighth anniversary. He arrived at the San Diego Zoo on January 15, 2003. He seemed to like the Zoo, especially all that good bamboo. At first he couldn’t get enough of it! Gao Gao fathered Mei Sheng just a few months after his arrival. Then he fathered three more cubs:  Su Lin in 2005, Zhen Zhen in 2007, and Yun Zi in 2009. So there was much to celebrate for his eighth year at the Zoo.

An anniversary ice cake was prepared for the occasion with two tiers, layers of apple and carrot puree, decorated with carrot candles and bright ice flowers. It was beautiful, and Gao Gao went for it right away. He started by licking off the thin layer of honey on top. He picked up the cake with both paws and held it to his mouth and began gnawing on the pureed apple layers, and holding the cake tightly in his front paws. The tiers separated, he went for the bottom apple layer first, chewing mouthfuls with obvious pleasure. He then tackled the carrot layer—yum. Later he went back and polished off the top tier and appeared to enjoy crunching into the icy puree.

Click on images to view in larger format.

Volunteers had decorated boxes for presents, painted in bright colors. Keepers filled the boxes with hay or shredded paper and lots of panda treats such as leaf eater biscuits, carrot and yam pieces, and slices of apple. Three presents were perched on logs, and he went for the one by the concrete tree stump first. With one jump he demolished the box and quickly pawed through the hay for the goodies. Finished with that, Gao Gao ambled over to the second present—the one with the big red bow—and flattened it as the shredded paper spilled out. A busy bear found all the treats.

Chris Tratnyek is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Pandas: Playtime and Bamboo.

Note: This morning, Gao Gao got some more enrichment as he moved to our auxillary panda yard, called the North Exhibit, to give Bai Yun and Yun Zi additional space. No doubt he’ll have fun checking out the new smells and scent-marking the area, and guests can continue to watch this adult male panda do what he loves to do: eat!