Pandas: The Transition

Xiao Liwu rests against his pillow as he plays Big Boy Panda with bamboo.

Xiao Liwu rests against his pillow as he plays Big Boy Panda with bamboo.

Giant panda Bai Yun and her now 8-month-old cub, Xiao Liwu, are slowly making the transition to their new enclosure in the main viewing area of the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Trek. The restless behaviors you may have seen from Bai Yun are absolutely normal during this transition period. We keepers are aware of how the changes can affect the bears, because I’ve seen Bai Yun go through this with EACH of her cubs.

For Bai Yun, the space is not new to her, as she has lived in this enclosure for many years. However, she has a new cub to care for now, and the scent of the previous resident, Gao Gao, is still strong in that enclosure. Although Gao Gao has been her mate and is the father of this cub, that matters not at all to her. In her mind, a male is in the area, and it could mean danger for her cub. As his scent dissipates, she will settle down.

For Mr. Wu, everything is new! The main viewing enclosures give our guests a closer look at the pandas, but they are also closer to the road, so there are new sounds to get used to. The cub’s new space is about the same size as his previous one, but it is shaped differently: it is longer and not as deep. There are lots of new things for the little guy to explore, and taller trees to climb! Cubs at this age do spend a LOT of time in the tallest tree they can find; in the wild, this makes good survival sense, as they would be safe from predators while Mom foraged. Xiao Liwu doesn’t have to worry about those predators here, but the instinct to climb is still strong.

As keepers, we continue to take steps to ease this transition time. We make sure we offer bamboo that is to Bai Yun’s liking whenever possible, we add various enrichment items with each feeding, and we continue to keep the access to her bedroom open, so mother and cub can retreat off exhibit any time they want to do so. Please be patient, this phase of unrest will soon pass!

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