panda Yun Zi


Yun Zi Travels to China, Part 2

Dr. Beth (at right) and Jennifer pose with their flight captain.

Dr. Beth (at right) and Jennifer pose with their flight captain.

Be sure to read Yun Zi Travels to China, Part 1!

Panda Yun Zi was a natural traveler in the van all the way to the Los Angeles Airport. He sat quietly in his crate and ate bamboo all the way. When we got to the airport, he decided to take a nap while we waited to get checked by security. We had to wait a short time before Yun Zi and all of his luggage was strapped down safely onto a pallet and ready to load onto the plane. The pilots were very kind to ask what temperature and light settings would make Yun Zi most comfortable in cargo during our long flight.

The time flew by, and before I knew it, Yun Zi, Dr. Beth Bicknese, and I were boarded onto the plane. Yun Zi was nice and calm all the way onto the plane. Not me! I was super-nervous, as this was my first flight overseas and flying on a large cargo plane. We met with all five pilots and introduced them to Yun Zi. He did extremely well meeting the pilots, and they even spoke a little Chinese (Mandarin) so he could practice.

Jennifer and Dr. Beth meet Yun Zi's new keepers upon arrival.

Jennifer and Dr. Beth meet Yun Zi’s new keepers upon arrival.

Our flight departed around 9 p.m., and we were off for our 22-hour journey. The airlines and the pilots were wonderful, as we all felt like we were in first class. They understood our needs and the care we needed to provide Yun Zi on his flight. Dr. Beth and I did not get much sleep on the plane, as we were making sure Yun Zi was as comfortable as possible. It was extremely easy to access Yun Zi, as he was only behind one door, and we checked on him every three to four hours.

I will tell you he was a much better flyer than I! Every time I checked on him, he was resting and calm. He enjoyed his biscuits, bread, and honey water in first-class style. I didn’t sleep much at all, wanting to make sure he was comfortable, and I was reassured every time I checked on him that he was calm. The flight was entirely at night as we flew up the coastline to Alaska and over the Pacific Ocean and landed in Shanghai two hours early, around 6 a.m.

When we landed, we were greeted by airline security, and the pilots quickly took us through customs so we could get back to Yun Zi. It was wintertime in Shanghai, and lucky Yun Zi had his fur coat on, as it was 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside. We waited for Yun Zi to be unloaded and noticed his small welcoming party (small because we landed two hours early!). Dr. Beth and I were immediately introduced to one of his new keepers (Mr. Strong) and veterinarians (Mr. Deng). They checked on Yun Zi and offered him a fresh apple. Yun Zi was polite but decided he would rather sleep.

And off he goes to his new home!

And off he goes to his new home!

Dr. Beth and I passed along Yun Zi’s training video (we had made a video for his new keepers to show them what he knows so far) and all his information to his new keepers. Mr. Deng asked several typical questions about Yun Zi: how much he eats, how much he poops in a day, his favorite scents, and favorite toys. We talked about his training and how he likes to see people.

I know Yun Zi is in good hands with his new staff and was ready for his journey to Wolong with them. I did leave a little piece of my heart in Shanghai that day, but I know Yun Zi will do well in China.

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


Yun Zi Travels to China: Part 1

Yun Zi enjoys lunch in his traveling crate.

Yun Zi enjoys lunch in his traveling crate.

I have been extremely fortunate to know Yun Zi since the day he was born four and a half years ago. I fell in love with him the first time I saw those blue and mischievous eyes. He has taught me so much about taking care of pandas, patience, and training. But he would tell you he has me trained! So when my supervisor asked if I wanted to accompany him to China, there was only one thing for me to say, and that was “Yes!”

At that moment I felt extremely privileged to be able to care for Yun Zi on this adventure to his new home in Wolong, China. A soon as I knew this information, I had a checklist of everything we needed to do to prepare Yun Zi for his trip. I knew Dr. Beth Bicknese, our veterinarian, would be joining us on the trip so I wouldn’t be alone.

The first thing and easiest part was picking out a travel crate for Yun Zi. We chose the same crate that his sister, Su Lin, used for her trip to China. Our lead keeper delivered the crate near Yun Zi’s bedrooms so he was able to see it. We then started feeding Yun Zi some of his bamboo and treats in his crate with the door open. Yun Zi is very adaptable and would sit and eat in his crate calmly; soon after, we were able to close the crate door while he was in there. At this point, we needed to increase the time he spent in his crate, and that meant he had to move off exhibit, away from public view.

Daily, Yun Zi started eating his lunch in his travel crate with his keepers near by to keep an eye on him. These sessions would last one to two hours, and we varied the time he was in the crate. Then came the scary part: we drove a forklift toward his crate, and Yun Zi proved that it wasn’t a scary thing at all! He sat calmly, eating his bamboo as our supervisor lifted him in his crate. He was excelling at all his preparations, including having someone standing on top of his crate, loud noises, and seeing groups of strangers around him (thanks to help from our panda narrators and educators).

The last major thing he had to do was his final physical exam with Dr. Beth and the other veterinarians. Yun Zi passed his exam with flying colors and was deemed healthy for his long journey. He even excelled at giving a voluntary blood sample two days after his exam!

Yun Zi made his part look easy. As the keeper going with him, I was assigned, with my supervisor’s help, to prepare all his luggage and things he would need along the journey. I picked out two of his favorite toys to take with him: a plastic donut and his PVC puzzle feeder (sadly, his swing was too big to come with us). We packed gloves, garbage bags, towels, a rake, shredded paper, squirt bottles, honey packets, a jug of water, biscuits, bamboo bread, and his favorite bamboo.

Suzanne Hall, one of our panda researchers, helped me make a training video of all the behaviors that Yun Zi knows. I know everyone is curious about Yun Zi not knowing the Mandarin language, but we prepare our pandas for this. We train them with verbal cues in English and hand cues/gestures. The video shows both cues, so when his new keeper performs the hand cue for “sit,” Yun Zi will know that he is supposed to sit. This will help him eventually learn the language and his new keepers.

Most of his meals will be the same. We have the ingredients to prepare Wolong panda bread, and Yun Zi really enjoys it. The bread is to replace the cinnamon-flavored high-fiber biscuits we offer our pandas. He will still get his regular diet of bamboo plus apples and carrots.

When the day came to leave (January 9) it was like any other day for Yun Zi: he walked into his crate to have lunch. When he was comfortable and eating his bamboo, the forklift picked up Yun Zi in his crate, and we loaded him in his transport van. Dr. Beth, Yun Zi, and I had our luggage, and we were ready to go to the Los Angeles airport.

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


Preparing for a Proper Farewell

Yun Zi is in perfect health!

Yun Zi is in perfect health!

It was a heartfelt farewell for our veterinary team, who have been taking care of giant panda Yun Zi his entire life here at the San Diego Zoo. With the utmost care, they carried out his very last checkup yesterday, making sure he is sent to his homeland in the best of health. The very first time this charming young panda met his veterinarians, he was the size of a stick of butter; his first checkups consisted of weighing, measuring, and making sure he was a healthy little cub. This last checkup, however, was a bit more extensive.

Always the pampered panda, he had every test to ensure he was in perfect travelling health. The veterinarians first made sure he was warm and comfortable by placing a warm blanket on him. He then had a few x-rays taken, got a TB skin test, an echocardiogram of his heart, an ultrasound of his belly, and even a dental exam and teeth cleaning.

While it was hard to take my eyes off one of the cutest patients in the history of hospital care, the legacy of Yun Zi shined through his veterinarians; even while conducting the most challenging of procedures, smiles would creep up on their faces—this panda’s charm was taking hold of the room. Not many can say that their allure endures even while they are sedated!

One of the most incredible moments for me was hearing the rhythm of this guy’s heartbeat; it echoed through the room like the most joyous of tunes.

Now we all know that nothing panda related can escape without an overwhelming amount of cuteness, but a true gush-worthy moment was when a veterinarian went to get a sample from Yun Zi’s ever-fluffy belly. The vet very gently inserted a needle in his tummy and then laughed and let out an inquisitive “hmmm…” Considering the idea that there was just too much fluff and chub to get through, she then went to get a longer needle.

But, of course, Yun Zi is the whole package. While he is a handsome and just plain adorable creature, it is his dashing personality that has won the hearts of his many adoring fans, so the best part was when he woke up after his checkup…or at least tried to. The sleepy guy was back in his crate and, at first, he was reluctant to wake up from his serene nap. As the team brushed him, he seemed to be enjoying it and didn’t feel the need to get up. His little eyes would blink and look around when the staff called out his name, saying, “Wake up, sunshine.” And as though saying, “Okay, okay, I’m up,” he would yawn and lick his teeth while probably thinking, “Hey, my teeth feel cleaner.” He would then lift up his rump, and then his hind paws, then take a pause and just plop right back down. At one point, he just went right back into his napping position wherever he landed, with his nose and right paw sticking out of his crate, but he didn’t care—he was a sleepy panda.

It was a great sign that the hardest part of the checkup was to get the patient to return to his enclosure, and with the incredibly cute checkup complete, Yun Zi is now ready to journey to China. If you see him on Panda Cam, you’ll notice shaved spots on his left rear leg and left arm and two circles, drawn with a felt pen, to indicate where his TB skin test was taken.

When one says farewell to someone they love, it is usually with a heavy heart. But I could tell by looking around the room that his keepers are filled with joy to see him start the next chapter of his life, and nothing gave them more peace than knowing that he would begin his journey as the healthiest panda one could ask for.

Ciela Villasenor is a public relations representative for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Khosi is Queen for the Day.

Note: You may still catch glimpses of Yun Zi on Panda Cam until his departure.


Yun Zi and Hammock Update

Here's another view of the new artificial tree.

Here’s another view of the new artificial tree.

It’s been great to see giant panda Yun Zi’s exhibit go through so many changes in such a short time, and we are not done yet! He will get a hammock. His old one is badly torn up—they don’t last forever with all the use they get. Our Exhibits Team is on the job making a new one, but we have to be patient. They are extremely busy with projects all around the San Diego Zoo. Also, as keepers, we need to find the perfect place to hang the hammock so he will both use it and remain visible for visitors.

It’s been an experience to see Yun Zi sleep at the top of his 15-foot tree—now he can see his mom and baby brother. He is also enjoying the new location of his “lounge chair,” and the guests can now see him up close. Tomorrow, our Horticulture Team is going to help us add new plants and sod to both exhibits. Yun Zi is also continuing his blood-draw training, so we will be able to get a blood sample without using anesthesia. He is excelling with all his training.

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


Yun Zi and His New Tree

Yun Zi checks out his new tree while munching.

Yun Zi checks out his new tree while munching.

I am very excited and extremely thankful to all our panda fans for the addition of the long-awaited artificial tree to the San Diego Zoo’s panda exhibit. It will provide many uses for our bears for years to come. This large tree can serve as a rain shelter, shade and climbing structure, and will be a great place for pandas to sleep.

SJ Rocks has done a magnificent job on the tree, and it’s more than I expected. I was very fortunate to be able to help in the design process with my manager and supervisor’s assistance. We started out with different tree options and decided on a bonsai-type tree. It is 15 feet (4.5 meters) tall and 6 feet (1.8 meters) in circumference around the base. There is a walk-through center for shade and four large sleeping branches. Each of the branches has room to put live plants on the ends (to act as leaves) and in a few select places in the trunk of the tree.

The tree is extremely impressive to see, and I am so pleased with how it turned out. Yun Zi was given access to the tree yesterday, and it will probably take him a few days to master it all. What fun!

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


Pandas: Yun Zi and Family

Yun Zi's done a lot of growing since he's 3rd birthday.

Yun Zi’s done a lot of growing since his 3rd birthday.

Panda Yun Zi, now 3 1/2, has been off exhibit while his new artificial tree is created. Keepers report that he is enjoying his time off exhibit with all the extra attention he gets from them! As you may know, Yun Zi has access to an enclosure that is next to the north exhibit where his younger brother, Xiao Liwu, and mother are during the day. This has provided great fun for Yun Zi!

In this off-exhibit enclosure, Yun Zi can scamper up a climbing structure high enough to peek into the north exhibit to see his mother and brother. And, he can peek at them and sniff them through the doors that connect the two exhibits. This is very exciting for Yun Zi but is not appreciated by his mother! While he is up high or at the door, Yun Zi calls to his family members with soft, friendly bleats. These are answered with barks and chomps from Bai Yun, basically telling him to back off. After all, Bai Yun’s priority is to protect her newest cub from any intruder, even if that intruder is her older son. Yun Zi takes these reproaches in stride–no harm done!

Many of you have been wondering about snow day(s). We are hoping to have the first snow day sometime next month, on a day that has not yet been finalized. When we have a firm date, we will post it on the Panda Cam page. More good news: thanks to generous donors, enough money has been raised to provide Xiao Liwu with an additional snow day on his birthday!

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


A Tree for Panda Yun Zi

Just wait until Yun Zi sees his newest gift from panda fans!

Just wait until Yun Zi sees his newest gift from panda fans!

It’s official! We are going to start building Yun Zi’s artificial tree very soon! We have talked to our wonderful contractors and have decided on its design and placement. It is going to look like a large bonsai tree and will be around 15 feet (4.5 meters) tall. We are very excited and thankful for the donations from all the panda fans that went into this! Our Horticulture Team added a new Chinese elm tree in Yun Zi’s exhibit as well on Thursday, February 14.

We will be taking down Yun Zi’s current climbing structure to make room for the 6-foot (1.8 meter) base of the artificial tree. The tree will take approximately four weeks to build on site (yes, it will be built in the exhibit!) as long as weather conditions are ideal (no rain). As a keeper, I really enjoy exhibit renovations, and to help design something like this tree is amazing. I am really excited to see how all the pandas will enjoy it and use it (as you know, we sometimes rotate the pandas into different exhibit areas).

There is a lot of preparation that is being done to Yun Zi’s exhibit currently, so please be patient with us and understand that he will have to be off exhibit during this entire process. Gao Gao will remain on exhibit as long as he seems comfortable during the building phase of the tree (Gao Gao’s exhibit is right next to Yun Zi’s). Yun Zi will be in the indoor bedrooms close to his keepers, and during the day he will have access to the outdoor habitat next to Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu’s north exhibit. When you are visiting Mom and cub, look up in the trees and you might see Yun Zi!

Jennifer Becerra is a senior panda keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: The Den.


Pandas: The Big Boys


Life is good for Gao Gao.

As our panda cub is growing and changing on a regular basis, let’s not forget our older boys!

Gao Gao is doing well and has been eating quite a bit. Since he is getting panda bread every day, sometimes our keepers have to spice things up a bit and put either honey or applesauce on the bread to encourage Gao Gao to eat it. The panda bread is made up of bamboo that Gao Gao has rejected from previous meals, ground into a coarse powder, as well as ground leaf eater biscuits, shredded bamboo leaves, gelatin, and water. This is made by our keepers every morning just for Gao Gao and fed out to him throughout the day. Gao Gao’s bamboo is smaller in diameter compared to our other pandas’ diets, and this makes it easier for him to chew and digest.

Yun Zi is doing extremely well and is being a normal three year old. He has had quite a bit of fun scent marking his enclosure. The first few times I saw him leave a scent mark, he would mark the ground, turn around and smell it, and then continue to mark the rest of the enclosure. Of course, eating throughout the day has been a main part of his day; as he is not full grown yet, we may still see him jump up in weight.

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: Growing and Climbing.


New Scents for Pandas

Gao Gao: a panda and his bamboo

The keepers at the San Diego Zoo are dedicated to enriching our animals’ lives and challenging them to exhibit their best abilities on a daily basis. A very common way of exercising our pandas’ sense of smell is to add new smells to their exhibit. Recently, one of the keepers added rosemary powder to the exhibit, and it certainly paid off for our Panda Trek visitors. Yun Zi constantly rolled in the powder and covered his entire body. Not every scent will inspire this same reaction; in fact, if the panda doesn’t like the scent at all, quite often they will completely ignore it and move on to other enrichment in the exhibit.

Keepers are always excited to have new scents and spices to try with their animals. Gao Gao had a lot of fun with apple-pie spice: he wore himself out rolling in it and fell asleep in the spice that the keeper had put out for him. Gao Gao is one of our toughest critics regarding what scents we put out and often shows that he prefers a stronger, rather than subtle, smell.

Yun Zi: How much longer will his hammock last?

Another way our keepers keep the animals busy is changing the exhibit, and sometimes the animals themselves let us know that an object in their exhibit needs to go. On Thursday, December 6, Yun Zi was climbing around on his logs right before his final feeding of the day. He was being his normal, active self, and decided to bounce on part of his climbing structure, breaking the end off! Being a bear, Yun Zi is very good at figuring out how to change things in the exhibit and even move them around. Our keepers have come to know that when cleaning up after Yun Zi, you really don’t know what to expect on a daily basis.

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Nighttime Pandas.

Note: Plans are underway for the installation of Yun Zi’s artificial tree, which many of you helped to fund. That should happen in just a few months!


Yun Zi: A Wild Child

Yun Zi had fun with cinnamon sprinkled in a box, October 25.

Yun Zi was definitely a busy panda boy today! He was extremely playful this morning, rolling around in his bin and flipping it upside down. At one point, after he flipped the bin upside down, he crawled underneath it and started to walk with it on his back. He looked like he was pretending to be a turtle! Then he ran after a pile of bamboo, jumped on top of it, and began to wrestle the bamboo to the ground. After biting off some leaves and tossing it aside, he sprinted around the exhibit, playing soccer with his Boomer Ball.

Yun Zi played like this for about an hour or so. Our guests really enjoyed watching Yun Zi at play. It was definitely a great morning at the San Diego Zoo.

Alyssa Medeiros is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Yun Zi and the Box.