panda keeper


Helping Panda Keepers

Why work when you can play?

Why work when you can play?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been fortunate enough to work as an exhibit attendant at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Center. I’ve been learning a lot about keeper work and what it entails. What I’ve learned is that it’s a ton of fun and a TON of work!

Most panda keepers start their day off around 6 a.m. with getting the supplemental diets ready for the bears and making the bamboo bread loaf for Gao Gao. Then they are ready to clean up last night’s leftovers and panda poop and give the bears their breakfast. Once the exhibits and bedrooms are clean, it’s off to the takins we go, cleaning and placing hay, pellets, and browse throughout these goat-antelopes’ exhibit.

When work at the Sichuan takin exhibit is done, more than likely it’s lunchtime, but soon afterward it’s time for the bears’ mid-day feeding. Keepers prep bamboo diets for the pandas’ last feeding of the day as well as tomorrow’s breakfasts and lunches. Next, they cut and weigh the apples, carrots, yams, and low-starch, high-fiber biscuits for the next day so the food is ready when the early morning keeper arrives. Finally, it’s time to enter information into the computer, such as how much the bears ate or what enrichment they were given that day. Pretty soon you realize it’s already time to clock out. Time flies when you’re having fun!

Even though I’ve had a bit of keeper work experience in the past, I’ve seen some things for the first time. I loved watching Gao Gao getting his blood pressure taken. He’s such an intelligent bear and is always ready to participate in any training session. He’s so eager to put his front limb through the metal chute to get an apple slice. Gao Gao is also very patient and definitely doesn’t mind the attention from the keepers. He LOVES his back scratches!

I also found it interesting to watch the pandas and takins getting their weights taken. The keepers have to plan ahead, since there’s always a lot to do in an eight-hour shift. I’ve learned that with this process, not only are the animals patient, but the keepers are as well, especially if one of the animals doesn’t feel like standing on the scale. If they don’t want to do it the first time, it’s okay. Keepers offer food as a form of encouragement if they decide to even stand on the scale for a slight second. Sometimes the animals don’t want to participate, and if not, keepers will just try again on another day to get that weight.

Watching the keepers do training sessions with Xiao Liwu has been one of my favorite experiences. Like his dad, Gao Gao, our youngster is eager to learn and interested in the honey water provided during his training. Sometimes he’s waiting at the gate to be let in for breakfast, but sometimes he’s fast asleep in the tree. Either way, I love to watch our keepers have a relationship with all of the bears. Of course they have their favorites, but you can see they have such a wonderful bond with each of them.

It has been such a treat learning more about keepers and their daily work. They are all such bright, intelligent, hard-working individuals. Each has their own spin on their daily tasks, whether it’s raking or sorting out enrichment and diets. They are such amazing people with a unique story on how they ended up keepers at the San Diego Zoo. Our Zoo has an incredible team of people who take care of our amazing animals.

Alyssa Medeiros is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Reflections on Xiao Liwu.


Birthday Plans for Xiao Liwu

Will Xiao Liwu come down from the tree for his birthday cake? Stay tuned!

Will Xiao Liwu come down from the tree for his birthday cake? Stay tuned!

It’s that time of the year again to order the birthday cake, wrap the presents, and celebrate with the San Diego Zoo—Mr. Wu’s first birthday is on Monday, July 29! This is a milestone for the Zoo, and we are the fortunate ones to celebrate our sixth panda first birthday with this “little gift.”

I placed the order for Mr. Wu’s birthday cake on July 1, as it takes our Forage Team around a month to plan and create their world-famous ice cakes. Our Forage Team folks always have amazing ideas and are very creative with their cakes. I continue to be amazed at what they can do with ice, and so are the bears! I am always tempted to take an early look at the cake, but I never do, as I like to keep it a surprise. The cake is always bigger and better than the year before.

Make sure you join us for Xiao Liwu’s special day and wear your favorite panda-themed clothes or something black, white, and red (we panda keepers will be in red for the occasion). Mr. Wu will have his cake presentation around 8:45 a.m. for special donors and the media, and the Zoo opens at 9 a.m. Make sure you are getting your cameras ready and/or watching Panda Cam!

There will not be snow in the forecast for his birthday, because he is not shifting off exhibit consistently yet, and we do not want to frighten him with the loud snow-blowing machines. There will be snow in the next month or so—we will let you know the exact date once that’s been determined. But be prepared that Mr. Wu might be enjoying his birthday festivities from high in the trees if anything makes him a little nervous. He has also made a Wish List for his birthday that will be posted on July 29. We’ll provide the link at that time.

By the way, Mr. Wu weighs 40 pounds (18 kilograms) now.

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


China Trip Diary: Part 3

Giant pandas Su Lin and Zhen Zhen moved to Wolong, China on September 24, 2010. Gaylene accompanied them on their journey and is sharing the trip with us through blog installments. Be sure to read China Trip Diary: Part 2.

I have decided that flying with a giant panda is the way to go! Fifteen hours go by very quickly when you have a two incredible pandas to visit with and take care of. Zhen Zhen and Su Lin were troupers throughout the journey. The “What ifs” and worries of what might happen were subdued by the natural behaviors these two young pandas demonstrated in conditions far from routine. The dedicated daily care given to Su Lin and Zhen Zhen, combined with the wonderful travel training efforts provided by the keepers, set this journey up to be a success!

The plane landed in Shanghai at 7:30 a.m. (Shanghai time). Chinese officials boarded the plane to check on Su Lin and Zhen Zhen and to review permits. Tracy and I parted from the pandas to make our way through Customs. We then were driven back to the cargo section of the airport to rejoin Su Lin and Zhen. They were both awake and observing their new surroundings.

The pandas are checked by Bi Feng Xia's vet and keeper. Due to rain, the panda crates and supplies were loosely covered in plastic.

Tracy and I met with Wu Honglin and Wei Ming (veterinarian and keeper from Bi Feng Xia). I was convinced that Su Lin and Zhen were in good hands for the remainder of their journey. Tracy donated the medical equipment she packed to Wu Honglin for use at Bi Feng Xia and gave him a large envelope full of medical, diet, and husbandry information on the girls. I handed over the behavior training DVD of Zhen and Su Lin to Wei Ming; researchers had worked with keepers to document the cues and behaviors trained to Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. I also presented a bag full of clickers, the hand-held audio signal used by trainers worldwide to communicate to an animal that the response given was what the trainer had hoped for.

There was a quick photo session behind a welcoming banner with Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, Tracy, me, Wu, Wei, and airline executives…and then we parted. The goodbye was a bit abrupt due to the fact that the next flight for Su Lin and Zhen Zhen was crucial to get them to their destination without a major delay, and there was little time to spare.

From left: Veterinarian Wu, Gaylene, Tracy, and Keeper Wei

Despite my disorientation of real time, I calculated the flight time for Su Lin and Zhen Zhen to Chengdu, the ground travel time from Chengdu to Bi Feng Xia, and allowed for a two-hour window of error to determine when to begin asking Peter if Zhen and Su arrived without any problems. At approximately 7:30 p.m. Shanghai time, Peter informed Tracy and me that Su Lin and Zhen Zhen had safely arrived at Bi Feng Xia. It was time to celebrate and sleep!

There was a significant void when I returned to work. Daily, I passed by the empty exhibits of where Zhen Zhen and Su Lin had resided. News of their successful adjustment in China was comforting, but still their unique behaviors and habits were missed. I’m sure the sensitivities of Su Lin and the antics of Zhen Zhen are being appreciated by their new keepers! And, as years go by, perhaps we will hear stories of success, just as we have heard about Hua Mei and her eighth cub, born this year!

As keepers, trainers, researchers, supervisors, and veterinarians, we build a bond and can become attached with the animals we care for. To limit the animals we work with to our selfish bond would be an insult to the plight of their species. With a big lump in our throat, and often tears in our eyes, we bid farewell to the animals we have grown fond of for the ultimate cause of conservation!

Gaylene Thomas is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo.


China Trip Diary: Part 1

Keeper Juli Borowski offers bamboo through the traveling crate.

Giant pandas Su Lin and Zhen Zhen moved to Wolong, China on September 24, 2010. Gaylene accompanied them on their journey and is sharing the trip with us through blog installments.

I did my best to suppress some of the excitement in my voice as I answered “Yes” to the question put before me by San Diego Zoo Associate Curator Curby Simerson in August 2010: “Would you be willing to accompany the pandas on their trip to China?” My efforts to minimize an overly eager reply manifested into a short, quick, loud, “Yes!” It was an honor and privilege to be offered this unique assignment. The many details of it had yet to be worked out, resulting in several months of anxiety and hesitancy to make any personal travel plans.

The daily responsibilities of an animal care supervisor, much to my disappointment, do not always involve direct interaction with animals. This new assignment, however, created an important purpose for me to regularly meet with Su Lin and Zhen Zhen! The many travels to and from my office in the Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station were diverted by a greeting, and often a biscuit feeding, to my future travel companions. I worked directly with the keepers to gradually introduce the elements associated with travel to Su Lin and Zhen Zhen. My confidence in the success of the event was boosted by comments the panda keepers made regarding their comfort in me being the one to accompany the pandas to China.

Panda and traveling crate get a lift!

The sensitivity to noises and new environmental conditions that Su Lin exhibited created an escalated level of concern for the keepers and me. We proceeded very cautiously and slowly to acclimate both pandas to their travel crates and to the forklift that would be moving them. Chomping on bamboo while being in a crate lifted four feet above the ground is a good sign! Su Lin and Zhen Zhen were champs in their training to accept the machinery and activity associated with their upcoming travels. The travel crates were modified to allow doors on each end to securely be cracked open for emergency and cleaning access. The keepers and I worked with the two pandas to allow the use of a small rake to clean the crates while the pandas continued to eat.

Consider the tasks associated with preparing for an international trip, and then consider those same tasks combined with the responsibility of packing for two giant pandas. I consulted with Lead Keeper Lisa Bryant, who had a successful trip to China with Mei Sheng in 2007 (read the first of Lisa’s blog post installments on that trip, Mei Sheng, Our Precious Cargo).

I also consulted with Senior Keeper Kathy Hawk, who has an intuitive understanding of the pandas in her care. Honey, hand-picked bamboo culm, small enrichment cardboard boxes, five gallons of drinking water, favorite enrichment toys, leaf eater biscuits, apples, yams, and carrot pieces comprised the bulk of the pandas’ luggage.

Gaylene Thomas is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo.


Thank You, Panda Fans!

Yun Zi and Bai Yun enjoy their remodeled digs.

Friday’s reopening of our giant panda exhibits was a huge success! It was so nice to see Bai Yun, Yun Zi, and even Gao Gao exploring their new areas.  Gao surprised us with his climbing skills: he really seemed to enjoy the new furniture!

Bai and Yun Zi were hysterical; we put out some loamex mulch in their cave, and they had so much fun rolling in the pile and getting very dirty! But that was not all: they entertained us by playing on the new climbing logs and exploring the new plants. I held my breath thinking little Yun Zi was going to go on a plant attack!

As a keeper, it is so rewarding to be able to take a exhibit space and turn it into a wonderful, enriching environment for the animals in our care. This all could not be possible without the generous donations of our panda fans through the Zoo’s Animal Care Wish List. The monies you contributed helped pay for the rental of the crane to set the new climbing logs in place, new plants, two new shade trees, and beautiful green sod.

I did want to mention it was a team effort working for almost three weeks getting our exhibits ready for the public. With this is mind, I want to thank our horticulture, and construction and maintenance departments, and sun bear and nursery keepers; they all pitched in to make our exhibits beautiful.

Remodeling our exhibits was truly a labor of love for our black-and-white kids. On behalf of all of our Zoo staff, we cannot thank you enough for your donations!  Please stop by our exhibits and enjoy seeing our pandas in their new exhibits. You helped make this happen!

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Bai Yun through the Years.

Watch video of the re-opening day!


Bai Yun and the Boys

“It’s quiet…too quiet…” we kept saying, for the first couple of weeks, anyway. Since Su Lin and Zhen Zhen left for China in late September, it has been very quiet at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station. The girls’ departure was bittersweet for all of us. Saying goodbye to these bears that we’ve cared for since their birth was not easy. Of course, we know that their move to China is an essential part of the survival of the giant panda species. To aid in the survival of the species is why we all chose to work with pandas in the first place. Nonetheless, saying goodbye to the girls was difficult. At first, we keepers didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves. We got a lot of extra cleaning done, finished some projects that we kept meaning to get to, and basically drove each other crazy. In hindsight, we should have enjoyed the down time. We should have known better.

Down time never lasts long in the zoo world. Things are always changing. Panda keepers at the San Diego Zoo take care of more than just pandas. In fact, in recent weeks we’ve gained a few more animals to take care of. Our Siberian musk deer and white tufted deer herds changed exhibits and grew in numbers, and we resumed the care of three Indian crested porcupines. Of course, let’s not forget the three bears that still reside at the station; Bai Yun, Gao Gao, and Yun Zi are always giving us something to do!

Bai Yun is, as always, the queen of the Panda Station, a fact that she constantly needs to instill in her young cub. As Yun Zi begins to consume more bamboo and other solid foods, food competition with his mother becomes more apparent. It’s fun to watch Yun Zi sneak between his mother’s legs or under her belly to steal a piece of her bamboo. Most of the time, she allows him to pull a leafy piece of bamboo onto the cave or to his hammock so that they can both eat in peace. As he grows, though, he’s becoming more interested in the culm pieces of bamboo instead of the leafy pieces, which Bai Yun is less tolerant of sharing. She’s been pushing him away and will sometimes take the food directly from his mouth. This leads us to the next change that will be happening shortly: weaning!

Although we’re a few months off yet from weaning Yun Zi from his mother, preparations have been happening for a while. Yun Zi is now 65 pounds (29.8 kilograms)! It seems like it was just yesterday that he had the appearance of a hairless lab rat. At a whopping 65 pounds, his keepers can no longer safely lift him to remove him from the exhibit. Because his idea of “helping” us is stealing our rakes, ripping holes in our trash bags, and biting our shoes, we’ve been busy teaching him to shift into the bedroom area while we service his exhibit.

Teaching him to shift led to teaching him to follow us through the transport tunnels to other areas of the research center. In preparation for his vaccinations, we spent several training sessions asking Yun Zi to follow us to the squeeze crate. He shifted beautifully up to the squeeze crate after just a few tries, but getting him back down to the exhibit was a feat! Bringing him out of his exhibit exposed Yun Zi to all sorts of new sights, sounds, and experiences. Watching him explore the tunnel while he completely ignored his mother and his keepers reminded us just how independent little Yun Zi is becoming (believe me; it was much easier when he just followed Bai everywhere!). Training him early on to follow us around, though, will be beneficial when it’s time to wean.

Gao Gao has been welcomed back to the main viewing area since Su Lin and Zhen Zhen’s departure, and he seems to be loving the exhibit! And why wouldn’t he? He gets to sleep on top of the artificial den, laze around in the pond when it’s hot, and people-watch while he munches endlessly on his bamboo. Since he’s been moved downstairs, though, he hasn’t been able to spend all of his time lounging around. Both Gao Gao and Bai Yun are being trained to participate in the panda hearing study (see post One More Thing before They Go). http://blogs.sandiegozoo.org/blog/2010/08/12/one-more-thing-before-they-go/  Bai Yun, of course, has needed very few reminders of how the hearing study sessions work. She’s been picking up the behaviors like a pro. Our Gao, on the other hand, has needed a bit more attention. He hasn’t had too much trouble remembering to touch his nose to the target when he hears a tone, but getting him to sit still for the maximum of 10 seconds before a tone might be played—wow! You’d think that’s the most difficult thing he’s ever had to do in his life. Patience is not one of Gao’s stronger traits.

All is well in Pandaland. We’ve heard that the girls are doing well in their new home, too. Some of our staff is well acquainted with their new keeper, and we’re glad to know they’re in good hands. I’m sure they’d also be glad to know that their family members are keeping their old keepers plenty busy back in San Diego.

Juli Borwoski is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Den Cleaning.


Planning a Panda Exhibit

A question was asked a while back about how a panda exhibit is designed. For any animal, a number of factors decide the eventual design of a San Diego Zoo exhibit. Architects create a concept using the space available and specific needs of the animal, working in conjunction with animal care staff. Once the size of the exhibit is established, the quality of that space is the focus. The habitat from which the animal originates, its temperature and/or humidity and/or photo period needs are considered. The design will take into account any specialized locomotion, resting, or hiding adaptations. One can see these factors in action on our panda exhibits.

Pandas are good climbers, so sturdy climbing structures are needed. They often prefer to rest off the ground, so structures should provide resting platforms or forks and bedrooms need to contain elevated options. Pandas prefer cooler over warmer weather. Exhibit fans and misters can be used when temps climb too high, and bedrooms are temperature-controlled. Pandas require a small pond through which they can walk or in which they can rest when the weather warms. Mature trees provide shade, and small plants are fun for the pandas to hide in or pull apart, as well as for general aesthetics. Periodically, sod is added for enrichment or grass seed put down in exhibits, but these have to be replenished due to wear and tear from the animals and from the raking done by the keepers when the exhibits are cleaned three times daily. A cave or large box can be provided for shelter. Sturdy bolts are positioned for hanging enrichment toys.

Currently, with five pandas in residence, we have a full house. Once Su Lin and Zhen Zhen move to China, we hope to be able to refurbish our panda exhibits. We have very large logs set aside for use in creating new climbing structures and a couple of mature trees will be added to one of the exhibits. These will be major renovations and will require the rental of a crane in order to lift and position these items within the exhibits. Thanks to our generous panda fans, money for the crane’s rental was successfully raised. This will be a good time to renew grass and smaller plants, too.

The renovations will be a lot of hard work for our own staff and for colleagues in other departments, such as Horticulture and Construction and Maintenance. However, the fun of watching the pandas explore and enjoy their remodeled homes will be well worth it!

Karen Barnes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Keeper’s Day, Part 3.

Update: Su Lin and Zhen Zhen are continuing their crate training for their pending departure to China. Their move will come soon. We thank you all for your support as the Zoo prepares the duo for the next chapter in their life. They will be missed.


Decision Maker Bai Yun

Bai with a young Zhen Zhen

We have had five giant pandas born at the San Diego Zoo, and with each cub we are learning more and more about this unique bear! One thing that we know for sure is that panda mother Bai Yun knows what she is doing, and she’s the best one to make decisions for her cubs while each is under her care. What decisions does she make? Well, lots of them!

From the beginning it has been Bai Yun that has decided when each cub can come out of the den for the first time, when to encourage her cub to climb, and when that cub is ready to go! One of the things our Panda Team observers do is document behaviors in this process. As a panda narrator, I educate guests about giant pandas and what we do at the Giant Panda Research Station, but I also did keeper work. Having that opportunity to watch the pandas for hours at a time as a narrator helped me when I worked with the pandas as a keeper, and I was able to share information that I had observed with our Panda Team.

I was recently asked by Zoo guests if I thought Bai Yun will wean Yun Zi earlier than her previous cubs. There is no simple answer to this. Over the next few months we will be watching and documenting Bai Yun’s behavior as usual. Right now, even though she does sometimes redirect Yun Zi from nursing, she eventually does let him nurse. Bai Yun is experienced and comfortable, but never negligent, with her cubs!

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


Our Growing Young Panda

When you see certain animals every day, it becomes difficult to notice how big they are getting or how much weight they are gaining. Well, after being gone for a month and returning to the Giant Panda Research Station at the San Diego Zoo, I can honestly tell you that Yun Zi, at 55.8 pounds (25.4 kilograms), is growing!

On my first day back, I also noticed that our beloved keepers are beginning the process of training him to go inside his bedroom without going in with him. At first I was surprised that they were starting this training so early, but after seeing one of the keepers stand next to Yun Zi, I understood. He is getting a little taller, and all that extra fat that he used to have and that we lovingly joked about has disappeared. Instead, a very muscular, strong little bear has appeared and is taking the crowd by storm.

Something even more interesting is to watch his activity level; he used to sleep a lot, but he now runs more and chases after Mom! When doing keeper work, we don’t often get the opportunity of being able to watch our cub for hours; it’s closer for us to check him on the monitors in the back. But working as a panda narrator once again has allowed me to watch more of his antics and play sessions with Mom, something I have to admit I’ve missed in the last month!

Yun Zi has also begun a slight weaning process with Bai Yun; or rather, she has started it. Several times now I’ve seen Yun Zi approach her to nurse; he goes right for that belly. But Bai Yun quickly pushes him to the side and almost redirects his attention. We are seeing more teeth coming in, and he has been chewing on the thicker bamboo, but he still is really only eating the young, thin bamboo.

Come see him soon—he’s getting bigger every day!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Mini Horse Memories.


Bai Yun through the Years

Happy 19th birthday, Bai Yun!

I remember that special day in the fall of 1996: the dream had finally happened, the San Diego Zoo had giant pandas! I had little sleep the night before our black-and-white celebrities arrived. I stayed late at the Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station, disinfecting bedrooms and getting things ready for our new kids. Bai was the first panda I saw in the shipping crate when she and Shi Shi arrived. As the back door of the delivery truck opened, there she was, looking curiously at me. I was in awe!

Bai checks out her new home at the San Diego Zoo, October 11, 1996.

As the days rolled into months, Bai and I became fast friends. I would spend my lunch breaks with her:she would be in the off-exhibit backyards, and I would be on the outside of the separation fence. Bai was five years old at the time and very much the comical youngster. We would interact through the fence line, and it was funny, as it seemed she would imitate everything I did! If I ran along the fence line, she would run; if I did a somersault, or bounce on all fours, Bai was with me every step of the way. Thank goodness we were behind the scenes, as someone might think the keeper has lost her mind!

Bai knows how to play! April 1997.

Bai and I have shared many events together. I remember during the early years of breeding season, male Shi Shi repeatedly rejected Bai’s friendly advances. Our Panda Team decided to precede with our alternate plan, and Bai was artificially inseminated; this procedure eventually produced our first cub, Hua Mei.

I was there the day Bai gave birth to Hua Mei. At that time, some people were skeptical about whether Bai would make a good mother. I had no doubts, as I knew her that well; she would know what to do and care for her cub. Bai has now proven herself to be an excellent mother five times to date!

Who needs a hammock? September 2001

Another story that comes to mind is when our vet staff asked us if there was a possibility we could train Bai to do ultrasound procedures. In three days, Bai learned to lie down in a squeeze cage when asked, and within a few weeks we were obtaining ultrasound pictures! How did Bai learn this behavior? Well, she imitated me while she was sitting in the cage: I laid down next to the cage, and my silly girl thought this was a new game to play! I captured this behavior using a clicker and a food reward after she did the behavior. Bai never ceases to amaze me. Since the early years, our veterinarians have been able to document the development of a growing panda fetus up to the day before birth!

Bai checks out an interesting scent, June 2003.

As I look back on the early years to the present, I still am in awe over Bai Yun. She has taught us so much about giant panda biology. Through her, researchers have been able to utilize this knowledge in efforts to better understand giant pandas in the wild and how we can protect and preserve giant panda habitats in China. Our Bai is truly the matriarch of our conservation research program here at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station.

Today, September 7, our grand lady is 19 years old. She is still just as beautiful as the day she arrived in 1996, a bright-eyed beauty who still captures the hearts of everyone who sees her at the Zoo and on our Panda Cam.

Happy Birthday, “Miss B”! Thank you for all you have done for us in the name of giant panda conservation, your five beautiful cubs, and for me personally. I am honored to be your keeper.

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read Kathy’s previous post, Panda 1st Grade.