panda mother


Living Life in Front

Xiao Liwu at 6 months old. He has truly mastered tree climbing these days!

Xiao Liwu at 6 months old. He has truly mastered tree climbing these days!

For a couple of weeks now pandas Xiao Liwu and Bai Yun have been in the front/main viewing area of the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Trek. The cub is extremely good at climbing up to the top of the pine tree and has even found a spot that previous cubs would frequent to take a nap. I think moving to the new exhibit was definitely an adjustment for the cub. He now seems to have a good handle on being out all day in front of his adoring public.

I know for our visitors it can be a little disappointing coming through the line to only see a distant little fur ball, but as we always say, “The bears run the show.” As a panda narrator at the exhibit, I am often asked when the cub will come down or at what time is he more active, but I can guarantee you that there is no schedule for little Wu and mother Bai Yun! Please be patient and realize that this is normal for him to spend the majority of his time at this age in the trees, just like our previous cubs.

Bai Yun has adjusted beautifully living back in the front. I always remind people that she hasn’t been in the front since July. She has found those favorite spots of hers again and has discovered a couple of new positions to sleep in them. One of her favorites is sleeping in Yun Zi’s old hammock with her head hanging over the side. Bai Yun is staying steady weight at about 230 pounds (Xiao Liwu is 27.8 pounds) and is doing a great job with the cub. He comes down from the pine tree on his own to nurse from her, and occasionally I’ve heard her call to the cub to come down.

I want to assure everyone that Bai Yun is doing everything a panda mother should. She is a fantastic mother, not neglectful or overly aggressive. Something I joke about with staff is that this cub doesn’t get her roughhousing nearly as much as Yun Zi did; Yun Zi liked to poke Mom a lot! Our staff watches Bai Yun on Panda Cam as well, and while the Zoo is open, there is always someone out in the queue watching. In the 14 years that Bai Yun has had a cub with her, we have never had to intervene or raise a cub for her, and we are constantly amazed at what she has shown us through the years here at the San Diego Zoo.

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


Perfectly Panda

Bai Yun is taking good care of her cub and herself.

Bai Yun and her cub are doing well, and their relationship has been evolving in predictable panda ways. As the cub grows, he can get bigger bellyfuls of milk with each feeding, which is followed by longer periods of sound rest. This means Bai Yun has more and more free time. What has she been doing with that free time?

Bai Yun continues to increase her time spent feeding outside of the den. She is taking in large quantities of leaf eater biscuits and produce. She is feeding on increasingly more bamboo as well, although she is not quite back to pre-pregnancy consumption levels. Bamboo feeding is a process, and it takes time, so as her intake continues to increase, we can expect her to be out of the den for longer periods. As the cub grows, the demands of lactation will also increase, so she will need every calorie she can get her paws on to ensure an abundant milk supply. Luckily, our keepers stand ready to assist.

Sometimes Bai Yun comes out of the den to rest on her own. She can most commonly be found only a few feet away from the den door, in her bedroom. This allows her a little extra space, some cub-free time, and some fresh air. The air in the bedroom is also a little cooler than the den, as our AC unit feeds directly to that room. Perhaps this has been a factor for her during some of our recent heat waves.

She has been utilizing the garden room, too. Those long-time viewers of Panda Cam will recall her favorite platform in that area. She’s taken several recent naps there. Sometimes Bai Yun takes the cub out with her. She’ll head out to the bedroom to feed or rest and plunk her youngster down beside her. Often the cub is asleep during these forays.

Occasionally, he is awake and squirming on the floor next to his mother. Once, Bai Yun even placed the cub on the scale in the bedroom, and keepers were able to use that opportunity to record a weight for him (thank you, Bai Yun!). So far, she has only introduced the cub to the bedroom; the garden room remains a destination for some future date of Bai Yun’s choosing.

Sometimes, Bai Yun can be observed wrestling with her offspring. She’ll turn the youngster around in her paws, nibbling at him playfully. At this stage, the cub is not able to return the play with much vigor, but watch closely—that will change soon. We’ve already seen the cub mouthing his mother’s paws, gnawing on digits. One element missing from your play-bout experience is the audio that staff can hear. Throughout most of Bai Yun’s play sessions, the cub is silent. Obviously, Bai Yun’s play activity is not bothersome to him. It may even be good for him in some way. Certainly it seems important for Bai Yun in some way we don’t yet understand.

None of what we have seen with Bai Yun since the birth of this cub is unusual or unexpected. She’s been the excellent mother we anticipated she would be. The cub continues to grow and develop in a way that pleases us. Mother and cub appear perfectly panda, both physically and behaviorally.

And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Pandas: Me Time.


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…

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Panda Cub: Furry and Fine

At last! A glimpse of the cub, now 8 days old, taken on August 6 at 10:30 a.m.

The anticipation had been mounting on Saturday at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station, because Bai Yun had not made an excursion from the den since Thursday evening. We knew she was due for a trip out soon. And we were anxious for a good look at her youngster, hoping to see progress in its development over the last 36 hours.

Then, at about 2:37 p.m., Bai Yun indulged us. She first hydrated with a long drink. Then she headed out to her sunroom for a quick snack of bamboo. She only had time for a few bites, but since this was the first time she had eaten since before the birth, we wouldn’t have expected her to settle in for a lengthy feast. Finally she finished up with defecation and urination, pulling extra bamboo about her to make her “bamboo skirt.”

Can you find the cutie in the straw?

We aren’t totally certain what the significance of the bamboo skirt might be. It’s probably a way to hide the site of her waste and mute the scent of it as well. We might imagine that could be important for a wild panda mother that is taking pains to hide her den and her cub from the outside world. At this stage of the game, even when she leaves the den she would not be traveling far, so anything she can do to hide evidence of her presence might be advantageous.

We did get that long look at the cub we were hoping for. And boy, does this cub look good. The belly is rounder, and the limbs look stockier. The neck looks a little thicker. And the body is covered by a coat of white fur that is obviously more dense than before. The physical markers of healthy development are all over this cub.

What’s more, the cub was more tolerant of Bai Yun’s departure from the den. Sure, it squawked its disapproval from time to time, but for most of Momma’s absence the little one bobbed its head and appeared to be rather patiently waiting for her return. As the moment wore on, it appeared to be tiring a bit and put its head down on the floor for a breath or two to rest.

After an absence of nearly six minutes, Bai Yun returned to the den. She immediately scooped up her cub, placed it near her teats and began licking the youngster in a soothing manner. In a flash the cub was thoroughly contented.

We’d expect nothing less from Bai Yun!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: Big Belly!

Watch mother and cub daily on Panda Cam.

Here’s video from Yun Zi’s party, held August 1:


Panda Cub: 1st Overnight

Bai Yun keeps her newborn close and out of sight!

I checked into the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station this morning at about 3:30. The keeper on duty before me reported nothing unusual. She had gotten a few very brief glimpses of the cub as Bai Yun shifted position and had heard the cub vocalize on a number of occasions. However, she had also noted several long bouts of resting for both mother and cub.

This was good to hear. After the fatiguing event that is labor, new panda mothers are met with a demanding neonate who needs all of her attention to stay warm and comfortable. The cubs are largely hairless and lacking in body fat; thus, Mom’s warm embrace is essential to their survival in those early days. To keep such a small cub warm, the much larger mother must hold the baby up off the ground in her arms.

This means Bai Yun cannot simply sprawl out in the den to rest. She must instead engage in a balancing act that allows her to rest while snuggling that cub against her body. What’s more, she has to change positions every 20 to 60 minutes to allow the cub access to her teats for lactation. This active postpartum schedule is not unlike that of a human mother who has just given birth, except that, unlike a human, Bai Yun never sets her newborn down. Her own paws and arms are her neonate’s bassinet.

Throughout the early, dark hours of this morning, Bai Yun shifted from resting posture to a nursing posture regularly. Though I was never able to get a good glimpse of the cub nursing, there was enough anecdotal evidence to suggest nursing was occurring. Bai Yun held herself in a familiar posture, bracing the newborn against her upper abdomen. She periodically moved the cub across her body as she pushed the youngster from one nipple to the next. The cub vocalized in protest at the adjustments but grew quiet shortly thereafter, probably because it was latched on and suckling.

Hopefully, one of the panda team members will confirm nursing soon, either by observing the cub latched on or by seeing smears of milk on Bai Yun’s fur after a presumed nursing bout. And once Bai Yun relaxes enough to give us a good view of the cub—something we have yet to obtain—we hope to see a full, distended belly that indicates it is well fed.

So far, so good.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Bai Yun Gives Birth.

Note: Our Panda Cam will focus on mother and cub in the den starting at 2 p.m. PT today!


Panda Wins Best Mom Title

Bai Yun enjoys some aromatherapy!

A few months ago, in honor of Mother’s Day, San Diego Zoo Global thought it would be fun to have a poll on our Facebook page, giving Facebook “friends” a chance to vote for their favorite Zoo or Safari Park animal mom. There were four animal mothers to choose from: koala Yabber, tiger Delta, hippo Funani, and giant panda Bai Yun. The prize was money to be used for enrichment for the winning mom.

Well, you all have cast your votes, and I am happy to say Bai Yun won hands down!

We keepers decided to spend the prize money to purchase an array of essential oils for Bai to use for enrichment. Bai has always been olfactory oriented, and in the past she has enjoyed unique scents to investigate.

A few weeks ago, we set up her exhibit and decided to let her choose which scent she liked the best. We put the scents on two Boomer ball toys; one scent was ylang ylang, the other was cinnamon oil. Our Zoo photographer was on hand to get some pictures of our girl enjoying her aromatherapy gifts!

The exhibit door opened, and Bai went straight for the enrichment items, totally ignoring her bamboo. Her choice of scent? She LOVED the ylang ylang. Our panda mother picked up the scented toy and was seen rolling on it and rubbing her face all over it. In the end, she smelled very fragrant!

Bai was very generous and let her son, Yun Zi, and daddy Gao Gao share her gifts. They both loved the cinnamon oil scent, and both chose to interact with the scented toys first and not eat bamboo!

As keepers, it is very rewarding to watch our animals enjoy enrichment items, and the numerous essential oils we were able to purchase will be greatly cherished by our pandas! Thank you all for your votes for our beautiful mom, Bai Yun. I know she will enjoy her aromatherapy “spa days” enrichment! We have lots of scents to choose from!

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Thank You, Panda Fans!


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.


Our Good-bye Girls

Zhen Zhen

I have read with some sympathy the many, many comments, questions, and concerns you have posted in the last few days in response to news that our two youngest girls are heading back to China very soon. I wanted to take a moment to address some of the issues you have raised and offer further insight into this important transition for Su Lin and Zhen Zhen.

Currently, both girls are undergoing another transition, from biscuits to bamboo bread. The bread is what the bears are fed in China, and to minimize the stress of the move, we want them acclimated to this dietary change as much as possible before they leave. Thus far, little Zhen Zhen is taking to the bread with a little more enthusiasm than her big sister.

When the bears are transported, they will not be sedated for the journey. This is the primary reason for crate training; once the crate is a familiar environment, they will enter it willingly and be comfortable when inside. A seasoned and familiar handler will travel with the bears, and job one will be to keep the girls calm and happy. Experience has shown us that supplying copious amounts of fresh bamboo during the flight goes a long way toward making this a successful voyage.

The other bears we have returned to China have been great successes: Hua Mei has been a twinning superstar, and as a result, she has given birth to more cubs than her mother; Mei Sheng was the youngest male on record—at less than five years of age—to copulate with a female. Mei Sheng participated in the 2010 breeding season and stands a good shot of being a daddy this year. I am sure Su Lin and Zhen Zhen will also do well in their native land.

The loss of our girls has another silver lining beyond those mentioned above: Gao Gao will make a return to the exhibit areas in fairly short order. Due to our need to house Su Lin up front in order to facilitate the hearing study, our patriarch has been behind the scenes for many months, and I know he has many fans that would love to see him again.

I appreciate your bond with our panda youngsters. Those of us who work with them are not immune to their charms. So much of our lives—and our time—is invested in these animals. That they would leave us one day was understood. That they will make us proud is inevitable.

China has embarked on a new plan to release pandas to the wild, one in which captive-bred females will give birth to their young in a semi-wild enclosure, and those unadulterated cubs will grow to be wild bears that will live their whole lives outside of the breeding center. Someday, one of Gao Gao’s descendants may wander the mountain passes of the Wolong Reserve. That would truly be a great end to the story begun in San Diego.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Bamboo Feeding Basics.


Pandas: All is Well

Thanks to all of you for your concern about Bai Yun and her cub. Bai Yun did indeed take her youngster out into the sun room last night when she went out to feed. Our security staff, who check on the pandas several times each night after the San Diego Zoo is closed, found the cub resting comfortably on a pile of bamboo under the stars, with Mother a few feet away. All was fine, and all is fine again today.

In the next few days you might see Bai Yun with access to her garden room again. This is a natural step in the progression of the postpartum period. In future weeks, Bai Yun will begin separating herself from her youngster for more and more time, usually during periods of rest. She might head out to the garden room (Camera #15) for a nap while the cub remains behind in the den. If she wants to bring the little one with her, that is fine, too; you will notice we have placed a lair into the garden room should she want to deposit the cub there. Whether or not she uses it is her choice. A bed of fresh bamboo may be even more appealing than a fabricated lair! Again, it’s up to Bai Yun.

Please remember that about this time with Zhen Zhen, Bai Yun was experimenting with taking the cub out of the den (see post, There’s No Place like Home). Recall also that the cub is no longer tiny and hairless but is covered with fur and a layer of fat built upon Bai Yun’s ample, rich milk. If the cub was unhappy, cold, or otherwise uncomfortable, it would vocalize its discontent, and we have never seen Bai Yun refuse to attend to a crying infant. We trust her to do what is right for her infant.

As always, staff is watching and responding to events that occur. But please be reassured that all is well, and Bai Yun is doing her usual fabulous job of caring for her infant. She is, after all, a “hero mother” now!

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


Prepping for the First Exam

It’s hard to believe that our baby panda will soon be a month old! Already preparations are taking place for the first cub exam by our Zoo veterinarians. How does one prepare for such an event? Well, it all really depends on mother Bai Yun.

Giant pandas do have a postpartum fast that can last up to several weeks. Once Bai is observed leaving the den to start eating, we start planning for a cub exam. Right now, Bai is leaving the den on a regular basis, eating small amounts of bamboo, leafeater biscuits, and produce three times a day. She is slowly getting back to her old routine. When the slider door closes to Bai Yun’s bedroom and sunroom, she hears the keeper cleaning the sunroom. When the keeper is finished cleaning, food is placed in the sunroom, the door opens, and Bai has access to her food. Lately, she has been coming out within a few minutes.

As Bai Yun eats in the sunroom, we gently close the slider door that separates her from her cub. We, of course, monitor her comfort level with this; we have her up to four minutes now with the door closed. The next step is to have a keeper in the other bedroom with the cub, doing some very quiet cleaning while Bai is eating. We have another keeper watching Bai in the adjoining sunroom to make sure she is fine with this. Our goal is for five minutes with this management. Once we have reached our goal, we can set a day for a cub exam.

The first exam is quite a staged event. We have a keeper selected to get the cub from the den, one keeper with Bai Yun making sure she is settled and eating, the vet who will perform the “quick exam,” the Zoo’s
photographer and videographer filming the process, and our nutritionist, who will get measurements on the cub. We try to keep the first exam very brief; as time goes by, we will lengthen the exam time as Bai permits us. Of course, if the cub starts to cry, the exam is over and it is placed back into the den very quickly! Bai is an excellent mother and will react if her baby is in distress.

The big question now is the date of the exam. All I can say for now it that it will be very soon! I have had the privilege of getting several of our panda cubs out of the den for their first exam. I can tell you this: it is very exciting holding a baby cub and seeing it for the first time out of the den! We are placing bets on the sex of our new cub. What is your guess? Stay tuned….

Kathy Hawk is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.