panda training


Yun Zi: Favorite Cues

I LOVE training my keepers!

Training animals is one of my favorite things to do as a zookeeper. We get to spend extra time with them and get to enjoy the challenge of teaching the animals an action we want them to do. With most training at the Zoo, we try to keep the “cues” (the word and hand signal to tell the animal what to do) fairly the same for all of our carnivores. We use both a word cue and a hand signal when asking for a behavior in case there is a language barrier or an older animal is losing its hearing or sight. After a cue is presented, we use a “bridge” (the signal that a reward is coming). For the bridge we use the word “good” or a clicker.

Panda youngster Yun Zi has a long list of behaviors he knows or is currently learning. Many of them are easy ones, and a few are more complex. He knows:

Target (touch his nose to keeper’s fist)
Paws Down
Paws Up
Down (lay down)
Touch (to touch his paws and nails)
Open (mouth open)
Side (lay on his side)
Roll (roll over, both directions)
Inside (shifting into a bedroom)
Over (to move to the other side of a door)
Follow (following, while walking in the tunnel)
Out Out (to go onto exhibit)

He is working on the following cues:

Paw (put his paw through the blood-draw sleeve)
Hearing study (touching the red circle when he hears a tone played)

Most of these behaviors are standard for all three pandas here at the San Diego Zoo, with the exception of “Roll.” This is a great behavior to teach an animal so you can see his or her entire body, and this is a fun one for Yun Zi. The next time you visit Panda Trek, watch for when the keepers are done cleaning the exhibit, and you might catch a short training session with one of the bears.

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Yun Zi Training.


Yun Zi’s Training

Yun Zi is growing so fast right before our eyes. He is now at a hefty 90 pounds (41 kilograms) and eating large pieces of bamboo just like his mom, Bai Yun. He has started his training courses just like his sisters and brother before him. The first “course” was the most challenging, and that was learning how to follow Bai Yun into the bedroom area. As a keeper, we call this “shifting.” We ask the bear to walk into their bedroom so we can close the door and safely enter their exhibit to clean. In July, Yun Zi was weighing around 55 pounds or 25 kilograms (too heavy to lift) and was playing too rough with his keepers. I was given the great challenge to teach this little one to shift into his bedroom on his own.

The hardest part of teaching Yun how to do this was guessing what his favorite treat was. He did not care for apples like his sister Zhen Zhen, and he did not want the red leafeater biscuits like his other sister Su Lin. I talked to the other keepers, and they told me to try honey water. I diluted honey in warm water in a squirt bottle. The first time Yun Zi tried the honey water, his eyes lit up, and this became his reward as the training continued. Yun Zi is a very smart little bear and started working very hard for the honey water.

As his keeper, he has taught me a lot about patience—he will move when he wants to. Teaching Yun Zi to shift took a lot of patience from all his keepers when we slowly asked him to come down to the ground and walk toward the shift door. I know many of his fans and the panda narrators can bear witness to Yun Zi taking his time to come down to the ground. He learned really quickly that we wanted him to shift on his own. Around October, he became very proficient in shifting when we noticed he was starting to eat the red biscuits. Today, Yun Zi knows how to shift into his bedroom on his own, with the exception of a few times when he thinks it’s more fun to sleep in the tree.

Now Yun Zi is challenging himself to learn new behaviors and to show his keepers how smart he is. He is learning to “target”; this is where we ask Yun Zi to touch his nose to the keeper’s fist, or target. This is a great training tool that will help Yun Zi when he is in “college” and will participate in the panda hearing study. He will need to sit in front of us and touch his nose to a target when he hears a tone. He is also starting to learn “paws up” and “paws down”; this is a great behavior that we use when we have Yun Zi sit on a scale to get his weight and to get a good visual on his body condition. The newest behavior he is starting to learn is “mouth open” so the veterinarian can look at his mouth and teeth.

Yun Zi is growing up so fast, and we have high expectations of him as we prepare to help him gradually move out into his own exhibit as part of the weaning process.

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Watch the pandas daily on Panda Cam.


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.


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.


Yun Zi and the Door

As he grows and develops, panda yearling Yun Zi is undergoing the same husbandry training regimen as his siblings have before him. Since these bears will live their lives in managed care, it’s important that they can transfer on and off exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Giant Panda Research Station easily and quickly, responding in a positive way to their keepers’ requests, and that the training starts early and slowly. Now around 55 pounds (25 kilograms), Yunni is quite the double handful, literally and figuratively. He’s a strong, healthy, and playful little panda and, as far as he’s concerned, whether it’s Mom or keeper, he’s up for panda play. His teeth and claws at the ready, he’ll grab and pounce—not a problem for his furry mother but not such a good idea for the keepers, so it’s necessary for him to be off exhibit, in the bedroom, when keepers are servicing the exhibit.

Now, Bai Yun knows the system: the green door opens and in she goes, to be rewarded with a treat for her cooperation. Sometimes she has to be called, sometimes the added incentive of a rattling treat bucket is necessary, but it’s usually a swift and smooth transfer. For Yun Zi, however, it’s another matter. Keepers are in and of themselves enrichment items—variable items in the pandas’ environment—and he loves to stay and play with them. But on the ground, he can injure the keepers without meaning to, so it’s better for all concerned that he leave the enclosure with his mother. But keepers are so much fun. But he’s so strong. Sigh.

Day by day, transfer by transfer, keepers are calling, cajoling, and encouraging him to follow Mom’s lead, with mixed results. If, despite their best efforts, Yunni stays put, it becomes the job of one of them to heft him up from behind (mind those claws, now) and carry him to the transfer tunnel. He’s placed in a section that’s separated from Bai Yun; the adjacent gate is then opened so that they are reunited in the bedroom. (Before you all melt with envy, think about this: 55 pounds of squirming, bear-smelling mischief. Okay, I know—it’s still pretty cool!) When the cleaning and feeding are done, the green door opens, and the pandas return to the exhibit…maybe.

For Bai Yun it’s the same routine, so out she comes, but a young, inquisitive cub like Yunni has to investigate his whole world (“Oh, look—a leaf!”) and is often easily distracted on his return to the exhibit. When this happens, the door remains open, and we all have to wait patiently for him to emerge.

Patience is the key with any training routine, and our keepers and behaviorists have it abundance; it’s a part of the job. Yun Zi is a smart little bear and has mastered other aspects of his husbandry routine with ease. We have no reason to believe that he won’t be a star pupil in this as well.

Ellie Rosenbaum is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, A Bittersweet Time.

Update: Thanks to all of our generous panda fans, our goal has been reached for the rental of a crane to place large climbing structures into the pandas’ exhibit!


A Bittersweet Time

Zhen Zhen

As preparations continue for Su Lin and Zhen Zhen’s move to their ancestral homeland, there’s a lot going on at the San Diego Zoo Giant Panda Research Station. The girls’ last official exhibit day was August 16, which means our priority for them right now is training and research rather than exhibit time. Guests on August 17 were able to get a look at them—or not—depending on when they stopped by, and this situation could change to “off exhibit” at any time. We have no date as yet for the actual move; as always, we’ll let you know when it happens.

What is all this training and research? Previous bloggers have addressed this, but in brief, the training is designed to minimize the stress and increase familiarity with the travel crates. Our previous pandas have moved surprisingly well with this kind of training—after all, they have their biscuits, bamboo, and friendly faces with them. Aside from a comfy place to nap, what more could they ask for? While the bears fly cargo, they always go escorted by someone they know who checks on them on a nearly hourly basis. For Mei Sheng, the trip to Wolong took about 21 hours, all in; I believe it’s a bit less to Bi Feng Xia. Getting cozy in their crates means that they have to spend time in them, hence the time now spent “off exhibit.”

Then there’s the issue of diet. Anyone who’s traveled, whether domestically or abroad, can relate to the fact that food is different wherever you go—it’s one of the things that makes travel so interesting, although it can be a challenge. The girls are transitioning to the steamed bamboo bread that they’ll be receiving in China, in addition to all the fresh bamboo they can eat, and the keepers report that the diet transition going well. This, too, is to minimize the “strange” in their new home.

And the research? There is hearing study data to continue to collect while we can, records to update, and videos to make to document training and husbandry procedures here so that their Chinese keepers will be better able to understand their precious charges and minimize the “language barrier” of new behaviors on both the part of the keepers and these new, unfamiliar bears.

In the past, we’ve had panda cubs remain here longer than three years, but it has always been part of our research agreement that the Chinese may move the bears after their third birthdays. It has been our good fortune to have Hua Mei, Mei Sheng, and Su Lin stay longer, but Zhen Zhen’s journey at just three years old is good fortune in its own way. It is difficult to introduce adult pandas to one another outside of breeding season, but subadults like ZZ can be found interacting in the wild, as well as in managed care, until maturity. None of our previous cubs have had this opportunity, since they were always larger and older, but perhaps ZZ can be introduced to playmates over the next year or so. Should this happen, she’ll have had a different experience than our previous cubs. This in itself offers yet another opportunity to learn about the development of young pandas, adding another important piece to the puzzle of the panda.

Ellie Rosenbaum is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Days of Summer.


Panda Family Update

Su Lin

Keeper Angie Fiore took time out of her busy day to give me an update on our popular panda family, so here goes…

Everything is status quo with Gao Gao, our adult male panda; he is healthy and seems content. Like most adult pandas, Gao prefers spending time on the ground, rather than up high in the trees, eating and resting. However, the Panda Team hopes to train this gentleman bear for participation in the on-going panda hearing study (see post Su Lin: Hitting the High Notes).

Keeper Juli Borowski has been working with Gao Gao on the beginning stages of training for participation in the study, but Gao has proved to be a “challenging” student. I got to see Gao’s training area, and Angie explained that Juli is teaching him to place his chin on a small metal shelf they call the “chin rest” that is placed in a section of the chain-link tunnel Gao normally walks through to get from the bedroom area to his outdoor space. Apparently, Gao doesn’t like to sit too long in one spot, but he is making progress! The next step is to learn to touch the red target, located next to the chin rest, with his nose.

Zhen Zhen spends her time next door to her father in what we call the “classroom” exhibit and is having a blast! Angie says everything is a game for this busy two year old, and Zhen has been enjoying some of the new toys purchased by panda fans (see post We Tried). She, too, is being trained for the hearing study and is proving to be a quick learner (no surprise!).

Zhen Zhen can be a little brutal on the vegetation, and a tree-trimming crew worked on her exhibit just a few days ago. Apparently, Zhennie found the crew just as entertaining to watch, and although she was in the back area, she dashed through her tunnels and bedrooms to view the action and “flirt” with the crew. Size-wise, Zhen has almost caught up to her father: she now weighs 148 pounds (67.3 kilograms) compared to Gao Gao’s steady weight of about 163 pounds (74 kilograms).

I hate to bring this up, but we all know that Su Lin will be moving to China sometime this year (no date has been set yet). In preparation for her move, keepers have started Su Lin’s crate training. It’s so important that an animal is comfortable in its travel crate before a move, and of course we want Su Lin’s trip to be stress-free. Angie showed me the long chain-link tunnel Su Lin takes from the main viewing exhibit to the crate, which has been placed at the back of the facility (it even includes a flight of stairs!). Thanks to her experience in the small sound-proof “room” used for the hearing study, our star student has had no qualms about entering the travel crate and having the keeper close the door once she is in it. The next step will be for the keeper to make different noises around the crate while Su is inside. Once she is comfortable with that, the keepers will jiggle the crate a bit to simulate movement. The last step in the training will be practicing lifting the crate with a forklift while Su Lin is inside. Between her hearing study and crate training, Miss Su, now at 183 pounds (83 kilgorams), is one busy panda!

Yun Zi and his mother, Bai Yun, continue to thrive and delight both keepers, Zoo guests, and Panda Cam viewers! Now eight months old, Yun Zi weighed 33 pounds (15.1 kilograms) on April 6 and, according to Angie, is getting to be quite a handful, as he views his keepers as play objects during exhibit-cleaning time! He is still nursing, but is also mouthing bamboo and has even ingested some bamboo leaves, as seen in the “deposits” he leaves behind. Bai is such a great mother and really seems to enjoy playing with her little boy (she is not nearly as playful when by herself).

And speaking of play, Angie showed me more of the new toys the pandas will receive as we attempt another photo session later this week. There is never a dull moment for pandas and their keepers, and Angie and the rest of the panda keepers thank all of you for your support!

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor and the blog moderator for the San Diego Zoo.


Den, Training, and Bamboo

Here are answers to some questions posed by our readers…

Den closure
Yun Zi has officially left the DEN! Keepers are no longer allowing him access to the den, and this is a decision to help him get ready to go to the main exhibit soon. Yun Zi isn’t looking for the den. In fact, he’s too busy playing, and he sleeps in his climbing structure most of the time. This is completely normal, and we are so pleased with how things have been progressing. Currently he is about 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms) and growing every day. Bai Yun is about 234 pounds (106 kilograms) and looks wonderful wearing it!

Panda training
All of our keepers are experienced in training animals, from primates to cats. All of them are qualified to train and are given equal opportunity to work panda cubs and train them. Kathy Hawk, senior keeper, leads the training with Bai Yun. The two of them have been together for almost 14 years now. Angie Fiore leads the training with Su Lin. Juli Borowski leads the training on Zhen Zhen, and everyone works with Gao Gao. Each keeper has a bear that they can focus on, but everyone is eventually working on the same behaviors with each bear.

Food is a great motivator for animals, especially if it’s a rare treat. Our pandas love apples, but something I didn’t learn until just recently is that we also train the pandas with honey. I knew they loved honey, but I had never seen it used in this way. Sure enough, Kathy will often use it to encourage Bai Yun to hold her still while a vet is conducting an ultrasound. I keep learning every day about these guys! Toys aren’t used for training, mainly because playing with a toy as a reward isn’t conducive for training.

Plants as enrichment
All of our cubs have played in the plants growing in our panda exhibits. We make sure we put plants in there that smell good and are safe to eat in case our cubs want to chew on them. Su Lin and Zhen Zhen still play with the plants that we put in their exhibits on a regular basis.

Bamboo preferences
Bai Yun doesn’t eat all of the bamboo that we offer her. In fact, we feed out about five different types of bamboo on a daily basis. Sometimes pandas go for really leafy bamboo, but other times they go for the bamboo that is a little thicker in the stalk. Their favorite type of bamboo is giant timber bamboo Bambusa oldhamii; they usually go for this first, and they get it every meal. Bamboo does have different seasons, and the pandas are the best judge of when bamboo is in season and when it’s not. If we offer a certain bamboo species and the pandas don’t go for it, that gives us a clue that it might not be in season. We give them 18 different species of bamboo throughout the year, so we always have some options. Other than bamboo, we provide our pandas with cut-up apples, yams, carrots and folivore (leaf eater) biscuits, which is a manufactured treat for them. We can tell what they’re eating by the leftovers when we clean up. This offers us information on what they will eat, when, and how much.

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


Gao Gao, Bai Yun, and Su Lin

Gao's newest offspring is Yun Zi!

Gao's newest offspring is Yun Zi!

Many of the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Cam viewers have asked about Gao Gao, our adult male panda and father of our latest cutie, Yun Zi. Although he is not currently on exhibit, I’m happy to report that he’s doing very well! He and his daughter Su Lin usually rotate every few weeks between the main viewing exhibit and the off-exhibit enclosure). But Su Lin is currently undergoing hearing studies by our research team, and to move her from the off-exhibit enclosure to the soundproof room where the study is done every morning would take away so much from the study itself. So for right now, it’s more practical for bears and keepers to keep everyone where they are at this time.

And speaking of Gao, we often get questions about his success at fathering cubs. Although Bai Yun and Gao Gao are the only pair of giant pandas to naturally mate in the U.S., there are several occurrences of natural mating in China’s panda reserves. Now, why are they the only ones to succeed here? That really can’t be answered, since there are so many different thoughts on the matter.

Once the brief mating season is over for our pandas, we like to determine if a cub is on the way, but we need Bai Yun’s help to do this. Our bears are trained using well-known behavioral training methods, employing rewards for successive approximation to whatever the goal behavior is. We trained Bai Yun to urinate on command by “capturing” that particular behavior and rewarding her for it. Basically, our keepers would bring her into an area where they would observe her, and when she would urinate, they would reward her and tell her she was doing a good job. She soon caught on that they liked it when she did this and loved pleasing keepers for a reward. Lab tests done on the urine sample can tell us about changes in her hormone levels that may indicate a pregnancy.

As Bai Yun got closer to the time she might be giving birth, we were able to do ultrasound procedures on her. Doing the ultrasound without using any sedatives is always better for the animal, especially is she is pregnant. Our keepers started training Bai Yun for ultrasounds a few years ago by capturing the behavior of her rolling onto her back for us. Then they had to desensitize the area that the vets would be working on. During this time she is in a squeeze, which is a place where keepers and vets can minimize the area the animal has to move in. Our keepers kept rewarding her for lying still while they rubbed her belly and put some pressure on her abdomen. They did this for a period of time to allow her to adjust to the procedure. This can take weeks and weeks of training, but is certainly well worth the effort.

Many of our panda fans have contributed toward items on our Wish List for our pandas, as well as other animals in our care. These items included toys for Yun Zi and his family. Do they have a favorite toy? From my personal experience, I would say that they love the hanging ball, especially if we put treats in there for them. They also like different scents (they love cinnamon!).

Yun Zi is still nursing, although there really isn’t an exact time when he does this or a schedule of any sorts. We have seen him play in water, but can’t really tell you if he’s drinking it. I think one of the reasons he has gotten so big so fast is the fact that Bai Yun doesn’t have a schedule. She will feed her cub whenever he is hungry and doesn’t really restrict that. Watching Yun Zi nurse is pretty sweet!

One last question on everyone’s minds these days: When will Su Lin relocate to China? Although we expect Su Lin to go to China sometime in the future, we do not have any information about this possible move at this time.

We thank all of your for your interest in our pandas and we hope you continue to enjoy watching them and learning about them!

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