“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.