panda mother and cub


Panda Family Reunion?

As a part of his training regime, staff has been asking young Yun Zi to traverse through some of the tunnels in the San Diego Zoo’s panda facility. At this time, the objective is to get him into an area where he can be viewed by veterinarians (no more hands-on exams for this bundle of energy!) and administered his regularly scheduled vaccinations. As a part of this training process, Yun Zi is sometimes in an area of the tunnel where he can peer into the exhibit currently housing his father, Gao Gao.

The other day, visitors to the Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station and Panda Cam viewers saw Yun Zi and his father looking at each other through this tunnel/exhibit space near the back of the facility. The two bears were separated by multiple chain-linked fences and an open space of approximately eight feet. There was no opportunity for physical contact between them, and their visual contact was brief.

We do not intend to open the howdy door between Gao Gao and Bai Yun/Yun Zi for the safety and security of all involved. In the past, our practice has been to ensure that the security of Bai Yun’s space—while she is managing dependent young—is not intruded upon by any other bear in order to avoid any undue stress to Mom or cub.

While it may have been enriching for both Yun Zi and Gao to see each other, and we know that Gao Gao’s temperament falls on the gentle side of the spectrum for adult male pandas, we cannot predict what Bai Yun’s reaction might be if we give Gao Gao visual access to her space. Remember: adult bears are solitary outside of the breeding season. Bai Yun has even shown us that if given access to the male when she is not breeding-ready, aggressive behavior from her is a likely result. This is a natural, defensive response. We wouldn’t want to risk such aggression in the presence of her cub.

The possibility exists that Gao Gao might also display aggression with the cub. Though those of us who know him might not expect this of our patriarch, it cannot be ruled out. Perhaps someday, when Yun Zi is weaned and more capable and confident, we might be able to try a howdy door encounter for these two. In the near future, however, any interactions between them will be purely coincidental and at a safe distance.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.



As of the evening of August 11, Bai Yun has made a total of six den departures. In the afternoon of August 10, she enjoyed her first bites of bamboo since before the birth of the cub. For this, she must leave the den, travel through her bedroom, and enter her outdoor sunroom. Here, the keepers leave fresh snippets of choice bamboo stem and leaf for her.

Keepers feed her far from her den intentionally. There is a door they can close between the bedroom and sunroom to allow the keeper safe entry to the area to place her food and remove any debris or feces Bai Yun leaves behind. The den door itself can close, too, but staff won’t attempt to move that door until much later in the denning phase, when Bai Yun is clear of this most sensitive time. The quiet zone is still in effect, and we are disturbing her as little as possible to protect the infant panda and ensure that Bai Yun is not stressed.

During these initial feedings, Bai Yun spends only a few minutes ingesting bamboo. She hasn’t been out of the den for more than eight minutes in one trip thus far. Even if the cub is relatively quiet, she seems not to push the boundaries too much yet. It will take her some time to be back to her usual hour-long bamboo feasts.

Bai Yun’s increasingly frequent forays will leave the cub exposed to the Panda Cam viewers. See if you can spot the black saddle and ears starting to color up. This change in color is actually a pigmentation change of the skin, as the hair-like fur on the infant is still a snowy white. The fur is very sparse yet. Look also for signs of Bai Yun’s quality mothering: little rolls of flesh developing behind the neck, and a full, round belly indicating a well-fed baby. All are indicators to us that things in the den are going very well indeed.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.


Fueling Up

Bai Yun and her littlest panda are doing very well. We continue to see the pattern of feeding, grooming, and resting that is typical of this early postpartum period. As always, Bai Yun is very responsive to her cub’s vocalizations. Although this cub is not as quiet as Zhen Zhen, it isn’t particularly fussy, which is great news for its mother.

One of our newer keepers, experiencing a panda cub for the first time, has marveled at the changes in Bai Yun since the birth. Juli remarked that Bai Yun is normally a bear “with a lot of attitude,” and she is amazed to see her so totally devoted to, and seemingly at the beck and call of, this tiny little creature in her den. It’s as if someone has flipped a switch, and our normally independent panda has morphed into “mothering mode” instantly and completely.

Bai Yun can remain so focused on her cub, foregoing food and drink, for only so long. Mother bears of some species are able to den up, give birth, and manage the initial rearing of their young in the den without eating or drinking. This fasting state can last for months with polar, brown, or black bears. They manage this by fueling their metabolism and lactation with their stored fat, thus protecting their muscle from wasting away during this time without caloric intake. Pandas, like other bears, have many of the same biological mechanisms and drives as do hibernating species, but they are unable to put on the fat layer in the same way as other bears. Bamboo just isn’t as caloric as seal or salmon or berries. Fortunately for the panda, it isn’t as seasonal, either.

So Bai Yun will ultimately need to leave her very young infant behind when she ventures out for a drink or a meal. In 2005, her first drink was 2 days postpartum, and in 2003 and 2007 it was on day 3. In 2009, Bai Yun left her den for a drink in the wee hours of 8 August, entering day 3. Her foray was brief (3 minutes in total) but her cub vocalized nearly continuously in her absence, so she returned immediately and tended to it. Later that morning, she ventured out again for another drink. As of this writing, she hasn’t yet left again, but we can anticipate this becoming a regular occurrence.

When will she eat? In 2003, she fed on day 5 postpartum; in 2005, on day 8; in 2007, on day 9. It’s likely she will continue to forgo food for another few days yet. Stay tuned to the Panda Cam to see if you can spot her running out for a bite!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.


A New World For ZZ

Monday, January 26, 2009, was the first day for the connecting door between the left and right panda exhibit areas at the San Diego Zoo to be opened. It’s part of the separation/weaning of Zhen Zhen and Bai Yun. We give them extra space: a new place for ZZ and a familiar place from a different time for Bai.

The center door was open when Mom and cub were let out. Plenty of bamboo and treats were spread for each to enjoy. ZZ came out a bit before I arrived and made a beeline to the NEW PLACE! The Zoo is not busy at this time of the year, but the people who were there were treated to a wonderful morning. ZZ embraced this area as her best, favorite, fun playground!

She sniffed, climbed, railed, romped, stomped, scent-marked after Bai, listened, jumped up a tree when new sounds came from a different direction, investigated the hollow tree stump (inside and out), hung by her heels…This smart, independent little panda girl finally tried to nap for 45 minutes in a large tree place, but too much was going on! She and her mother would pass like ships in the night, and she would only go to the connecting door to follow Bai or for just a recheck. Move to connecting door – walk through – make U-turn – return to right viewing area…pretty amazing, not unexpected.

Tuesday morning found the young, growing cub sleeping in her “new” tree before the Zoo opened. It appears that Zhen Zhen is more than ready to step out on her own. Each of the cubs has done this differently; we’re always surprised by them, their personalities, and how they react to this phase of their lives.

Updates to follow, as we can. Meanwhile, enjoy!

Ellie Rosenbaum is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo.