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pandas

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Our Panda Family

While visiting "our" pandas in China, the author took a moment to take in the beauty of  the panda base at Hetaoping.

While visiting “our” pandas in China, I took a moment to take in the beauty of the panda base at Hetaoping.

It seems like only yesterday that I first started working with giant pandas. In February 1997, having spent the previous four years focused on fieldwork in the Arctic, I was hired on to the San Diego Zoo’s ‘Panda Team’. As the Panda Conservation Program was taking shape, I remember well spending hours collecting behavioral data on Bai Yun and Shi Shi, getting to know the rest of the scientists and animal care staff on the Panda Team, and being introduced to our visiting colleagues from the Wolong breeding center in China. Now, 18 years later, I have the pleasure of seeing both our bears, and our program “grow up”, and of seeing Chinese colleagues–most of whom I first met in the 1990’s–still actively engaged in efforts towards the conservation of giant pandas.

Earlier this month I traveled to China, along with Ron Swaisgood (co-head of our giant panda program), to meet with a range of scientists and wildlife managers and discuss the current status and future directions of panda conservation research program. It was a fantastic trip—productive, uplifting and emotional. It was a trip filled with familiar faces and ample opportunities to visit with long-time colleagues and old friends (both human and panda).

We celebrated our reunion with traditional Sichuan Hot Pot.

We celebrated our reunion with delicious traditional Sichuan Hot Pot.

The first leg of our trip was focused on meetings in Beijing, with our colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Science. We discussed giant panda research efforts in the Foping Nature Reserve over the course of the three days we were there, but of course, there was also the wedding we were invited to: A student we hosted for a year at the San Diego Zoo was thrilled to have his ‘San Diego Family’ attend this important family event.

After a few days, we left Beijing, and headed south to Sichuan Provence, where we were to visit the four panda bases: Bi Feng Xia, Dujianyan, Genda, and Heataoping (aka Wolong). After our long-time collaborator, Mr. Zhou, met us at the hotel in Chengdu, we loaded up and started the drive to Bi Feng Xia base. Five minutes into our drive, we were comparing digital photographs on our phones of our children: amazing to see how they’ve grown! Beautiful smiles of teenagers and young-adults, quickly compared to the beautiful smiles of their toddling counterparts. This ritual was repeated over and over and over again throughout our time in Sichuan, with each colleague we saw, and with seemingly mounting levels of enthusiasm. It felt like a family reunion.

Of course the centerpiece of our family reunion was the pandas, and getting status updates and seeing the San Diego Zoo born pandas was a primary objective for me. With visits to all four facilities under our belts, I am very happy to say that I was able to check in with all of ‘our’ bears, and that all are doing well! Below, I provide updates on each, and pictures of all but Zhen Zhen and Mei Sheng. Because Hua Mei and her cub were in the reintroduction training pens, I had to take the photos at a distance, so they are a bit blurry.

As the first surviving panda cub born in the US, Hua Mei made headlines. Her life has continued to be amazing!

Hua Mei has turned out to be an amazing mother, just like Bai Yun!

Hua Mei b. 1999
Hua Mei has followed Bai Yun’s footsteps in that she has been an incredibly productive mother panda! In 2013, she gave birth to her 11th cub, a male named Hua Long. Currently, beautiful Hua Mei and Hua Long reside at the Wolong Research Base in Hetaoping. This locale–the original panda research base,—was hit hard by the earthquakes of 2008. Amazingly though, most of the animal holding areas are in great shape, and Hua Mei and her cub are living in the first phase reintroduction training area. This means that Hua Long may one day be released to the wild: A very exciting prospect for one of our very own “grandchildren”.

Mei Sheng b. 2003
Mei Sheng is living at the Bi Feng Xia base near Ya’an. Mei Sheng is part of the breeding program, however, he doesn’t seem to have yet taken after his father’s studly ways. Mei Sheng is now almost 12 years old, but successful breeding has been elusive. Regardless, he is a happy and healthy panda with much space to explore and enjoy his time.

Sweet Su Lin is busy raising her second cub.

Sweet Su Lin is busy raising her second cub.

Su Lin b. 2005
Su Lin gave birth to her second surviving cub in 2014. Currently, Su Lin and her beautiful young cub are living at the panda research base at Hetaoping. Her enclosure lies about 100 feet from where her sister Hua Mei is living. I wonder if they know how truly close they are? Both Su Lin and her cub look great, and appear to be thriving.

Zhen Zhen b. 2007
Zhen Zhen resides at Bi Feng Xia, is part of the breeding program, and is doing well. She has given birth twice—one stillborn, and another cub that did not survive. While this is not typical, this does not preclude Zhen Zhen from successfully giving birth and rearing cubs in the future. We are all pulling for her and hope that she will be successful in 2015 if she gets pregnant.

Yun Zi is thriving in his new home.

Yun Zi is thriving in his new home.

Yun Zi b. 2009
Yun Zi was always one of my favorites. At 5.5 years old, Yun Zi is too young for the breeding program. He is living at the research base at Dujianyan and has access to a large outdoor enclosure. These new facilities are beautiful and he is thriving there! A plaque by his enclosure filled me with pride, and reminded me of the mutual respect with which we hold our colleagues: “Yun Zi. Birthplace: San Diego Zoo in America. He is the achievement of scientific and research cooperation between China and America.”

There is still so much for us to learn about giant pandas, and we know that there are many challenges still ahead for us in our efforts to conserve this iconic species. However, the good news is that we are moving forward together, as an extended and international family, with the same goal: conserving giant pandas and giant panda habitat, well into the future.

Megan Owen is an associate director in the Applied Animal Ecology Division, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, What’s Up with Bai Yun?

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What’s Up with Bai Yun?

Bai Yun has already taught us so much, but apparently "class" is still in session!

Bai Yun has already taught us so much, but apparently “class” is still in session!

I have just returned from China, and am happy to say that I had the opportunity to visit Giant Panda research bases at Bi Fengxia and Wolong. While I was most excited to visit with our San Diego-born pandas, we arrived at the Bi Fengxia base in Ya’an to some exciting and unexpected news: Ying Ying, born in 1991, had come into estrus. She bred naturally and had just been artificially inseminated. Amazingly, this was not the only unexpected news I received that day: emails from the Panda Team back at the San Diego Zoo indicated that Bai Yun’s behavior was escalating, as was Gao Gao’s motivation. Could Bai Yun be coming into estrus?

The Panda Team is made up of scientists, animal care specialists and veterinarians. All are experts in their respective fields, and all with years (and in some cases decades) of experience. However, the fact of the matter is, we all take our lead from Bai Yun. Since Bai Yun’s arrival at the San Diego Zoo back in 1996, she has demonstrated ‘text book’ reproductive behavior and physiology. As a result, we have been able to observe the reproductive process in giant pandas in great detail, and have learned much from Bai Yun that has informed our approach to conservation breeding of giant pandas in general.

In 2012, Bai Yun was just days shy of being the oldest panda female to have successfully given birth and raised a cub. With that knowledge, we all thought that Xiao Liwu would be Bai Yun’s last cub. However—and as always—it was not up to us. Our plan then, as it has always been, was to monitor Bai Yun closely after she weaned Xiao Liwu, and follow her lead. Thus, in the spring of 2014, we began, once again, monitoring Bai Yun once again for signs of estrus. However, after a few days of estrus-like behavior, all went quiet and we did not have any breeding introductions. Further, because her estrous behavior and estrous hormones did not peak, we did not do an artificial insemination.

As it turns out, Bai Yun likes to keep us on our toes! I can say with confidence that no one on the Panda Team thought that Bai Yun would have a full-blown estrus this year—but that is not up to us to decide! Not long ago, Bai Yun started to show all the classic behavioral signs of estrus, and her hormone profile changed along with it. Scent marking, vocalizations, and tail-up behavior all unfolded in an unambiguous display of estrus. Gao Gao’s interest in Bai Yun was very strong, and he was clearly motivated to breed. When the time was right, Bai Yun and Gao Gao were introduced. While Gao Gao did not appear to be successful in his breeding attempt, the strength of Bai Yun’s estrous behavior and hormone profile indicated that she had indeed ovulated! The breeding season was not over yet.

Shi Shi, the male who came with Bai Yun to the San Diego Zoo in 1996, was a wild born male, and the sire to Hua Mei. He is a genetically valuable male, and semen collected from him years ago is still in great condition. Any offspring from Shi Shi are valuable to the overall conservation-breeding program for giant pandas, and so it was decided to artificially inseminate Bai Yun with Shi Shi’s sperm.

At this point, as always, we will wait and see what Bai Yun does; we will follow her lead, and make sure she has all that she needs. She has a way of teaching us new things all the time, and has continued to make valuable contributions  to giant panda conservation efforts. We will monitor her behavior to start with, and eventually we will look for other signs of pregnancy through thermal imaging and ultrasound. And we will share our findings with all of you along the way!

Megan Owen is an associate director in the Applied Animal Ecology Division, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Polar Bear Tatqiq Wears It Well.

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Huntington Gardens Sending Bamboo to Feed San Diego Zoo Pandas

The San Diego Zoo's giant pandas are getting new varieties of bamboo in their diet.

The San Diego Zoo’s giant pandas are getting new varieties of bamboo in their diet.

The three pandas at the San Diego Zoo are getting bamboo imported from the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens as part of an effort to diversify their diet. The bamboo, harvested from large stands of bamboo that have grown in the Pasadena-area gardens for many years, represents a diversity of species that are not currently as available in the San Diego Zoo’s own groves.

“At the San Diego Zoo, we have been cultivating and harvesting our bamboo for almost two decades,” said Michael Schlegel, nutritionist for the San Diego Zoo. “By making use of the Huntington’s resources we are able to give our stands a rest, allowing them to grow more fully for harvest in future years.”

Zoo horticulturists harvest the Huntington’s bamboo weekly, bringing back about 200 pounds each trip. The variety, amount and quality of the bamboo stands offer high-quality food for the well loved black and white animals in San Diego.

“When the zoo dietician contacted us about harvesting some of our bamboo for the pandas, we were happy to help. Thinning the groves is healthy for the plants, and we had plenty of it to spare, especially around our Chinese and Japanese gardens.  Some species of bamboo are native to China, and since pandas are finicky about what they eat, it’ll be interesting to see if they like those best,” said David MacLaren, Curator of Asian Gardens at The Huntington.

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution serving scholars and the general public. More information about The Huntington can be found online at huntington.org.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291

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Pandas in Winter

Cold temperatures? Extra bamboo? Works for Bai Yun!

Cold temperatures? Extra bamboo? Works for Bai Yun!

For the first time in a long time, our pandas are actually getting some truly winter weather. We’ve had some rain recently, and temperatures in the first week of the new year were really low for our region. And the geography of the Zoo means some parts of the grounds feel the chill more than others; Panda Canyon is usually 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the main entrance (where temperatures were in the mid-50s). Although the staff is feeling a bit chilly, the bears are loving this weather!

Giant pandas have a very thick, dense fur coat and like most bears they will try to gain as much weight as possible for winter, but they do not go into torpor (commonly called hibernation). Unlike their counterparts in China and zoos in colder parts of the world, our pandas don’t usually have much of a winter to deal with, but rest assured they are all doing just fine with this cold snap!

We always offer more food than what the bears will actually eat. This allows them to have variety in their diet but also giving them access to extra calories should they so desire. Our pandas do not weigh as much as other pandas that go through more severe winters, because they don’t need the extra insulating fat layer here in San Diego.

As someone who has worked both directly and indirectly (as a Panda Narrator) with the bears, I can honestly say that I love watching them in cold weather. You get to see them eat more and the younger pandas get a little more hop to their step. Yun Zi was one of my favorites to watch in winter. He was always an active fellow, but when it was cold or raining he’d roll in the mud and really tear his exhibit apart. Not always fun to clean up after, but a blast to observe!

No matter what the weather, Bai Yun tends to do her normal thing—eat till she’s tired, then take a nap. I often joke that she’s been here in San Diego for so long nothing much can surprise her anymore. Gao Gao will remain off exhibit in the North Exhibit, with regular access to his bedroom. The perk about having the back area to himself is that he can pretty much run his day however he wants. Inside or out he’s got full reign of the area in the back. Mr. Wu will be on exhibit, and I’m looking forward to watching him and see how he reacts to this cold snap. I know it’s not cold compared to where a lot of you are from, but for these bears, and us, it’s definitely a change!

Happy New Year and hope you are all well! Come see us soon in 2015!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator and keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Dealing with Noise in Panda Canyon.

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Dealing with Noise in Panda Canyon

Bai Yun is a pro at dealing with activity around Panda Trek.

New noises catch Bai Yun’s attention, then it’s back to “business as usual.”

As many of you have seen on Panda Cam and in person, young Mr. Wu is off exhibit at times and only Bai Yun is present. Rest assured there is nothing wrong with him and he is perfectly fine. Our Zoo is coming up on its 100th birthday soon, so we are improving areas and updating where we can. With that comes a certain amount of noise that we really cannot get away from, so we closely monitor our animals for any signs of stress.

Xiao Liwu, being younger and not as experienced with new sounds, is more likely to react to the construction noise. Bai Yun is typically a pro at changes and has been managing extremely well. One of the benefits of having a panda narrator keeping an eye on the bears is that the narrator is familiar with each animal and can tell the Panda Team when there is a change in behavior. Our Web Team will always do its best to notify you when there may be a change in who is out for viewing, but the fact of the matter is that things can change quickly here, and we often need to make judgment calls quickly, too.

When the bears are off exhibit, they still have an outside yard they can go into if they so choose. Both of the north exhibits are close to bedrooms and, if needed, the keepers can give the pandas access to the bedrooms. The bedrooms offer a dry and cozy area for the pandas. Keepers often fill a giant tub full of hay or shavings for the bears to rest in, and there is a garden room for them to go into as well. Having a building between them and the extra noise often makes a huge difference in a panda’s comfort level and helps diminish any stress behavior.

Bai Yun is an expert at dealing with noise. When we were building the rest of Panda Trek, she was still able to be out in the main viewing area, right next to the noise. There were, of course, days where we noticed that she was a little annoyed with the activity level and so gave her access to her bedroom. There are several cameras in the area, and the panda narrator and guest ambassador all keep an eye—and ear—out for her to make sure that she is comfortable. In many situations, just giving her 10 to 15 minutes in her bedroom to get a little break will often set her right. In addition, we always do our best to make sure that she has extra bamboo that she is fond of and to try and keep her busy with enrichment.

Come see us soon, and please know that we are always thinking of how to make this an easy time for our animals!
Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator and keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Talkin’ about Takins.

 

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Lazy Gao Day

Panda Cam caught Bai Yun enjoying some treats on her "plate."

Panda Cam caught Bai Yun enjoying some treats on her “plate.”

We don’t get to see much of our senior panda, Gao Gao, on Panda Cam. But rest assured he is looking good, eating well, and, in the words of San Diego Zoo keeper Karen Scott, he seems “happy.” Gao is even at his ideal weight: 170 pounds (77.2 kilograms).

So why can’t guests view Gao Gao these days? Well, as Karen explained, Gao Gao and his son, Xiao Liwu, are “like peas in a pod,” personality-wise. “Mr. Wu” doesn’t like the construction noise as we build our new Asian leopard habitat, and neither does his dad! They are much more comfortable farther away from the intermittent noise. Xiao Liwu is currently in the off-exhibit north yard, where he can sometimes be seen on Panda Cam, and Gao Gao has access to another off-exhibit yard. Bai Yun, our matriarch, remains in her normal exhibit, where guests can admire her munching contentedly on bamboo. Nothing fazes this panda mama!

Although Gao Gao can go in his outside yard whenever he wants to, he sometimes prefers to have what Karen calls a “lazy Gao day.” He has a large rubber tub that he uses as a comfy bed. Keepers fill the tub with a flake of excelsior hay, and Gao likes to stretch out in it, resting on his back, his legs straight out and his forelimbs dangling over the edge. The other day, Karen put FOUR flakes of hay in the tub and fluffed up some of it to make a pillow for Gao. Panda heaven! With his pile of bamboo nearby, Karen says all he really needed was a TV to watch a football game or two.

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, How to Take a Panda’s Blood Pressure: 8 Easy Steps.

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Pandas Keep Cool

Xiao Liwu dines next to his refreshing pool.

Xiao Liwu dines next to his refreshing pool.

It’s been warm in San Diego lately, and some of you may be wondering how our giant pandas are kept comfy. Senior Keeper Kathy Hawk filled me in on the hot-weather protocol used in the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Trek.

There are thermometers in shaded areas of each panda enclosure, and if the temperature reaches 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29.4 degrees Celsius), the pandas are given access to their air-conditioned bedrooms. The panda station has its own ice-making machine, so keepers can fill tubs with ice to make ice beds for some cool lounging, or they can make an ice-cube pile for flopping on (the pandas, not the keepers!). Sometimes food treats are added to the ice to encourage use.

Bai Yun knows how to relax on a warm day!

Bai Yun knows how to relax on a warm day!

You may have seen the mist fans in each yard. These fans mix water and air to blow a cooling mist into the enclosure. Kathy said the pandas really seem to enjoy the shrouded mist the fans create. Ice treats or popsicles made with applesauce or other panda delights are offered as both enrichment and as another way to keep cool. And, of course, each enclosure has a pool to soak in.

Xiao Liwu rests after a big meal, the mist fan blowing on his sweet face.

Xiao Liwu rests after a big meal, the mist fan blowing on his sweet face.

Kathy emphasized that anytime there is high humidity, no matter the actual temperature, the pandas are pulled off exhibit. Keepers are pro-active about avoiding any signs of early heat stress with these precious bears, and all three are closely monitored.

Thank you, panda keepers, for always taking such good care of these black-and-white bears. Your work is much appreciated!

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Fishing Cats: It Takes Two.

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Pandas: Back in Main View

Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu, caught on camera this week

Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu, caught on Panda Cam this week

Pandas are officially back in the main viewing area of Panda Canyon at the San Diego Zoo. I think the cub, Xiao Liwu, is thrilled to have his favorite branch back, and Bai Yun is still trying to fit on that little hammock to take her naps. Yun Zi has plenty to keep him busy with his climbing structures and, of course, scent marking the exhibit. In fact, that was the first thing I noticed them doing when they were put back into the area; Bai Yun spent most of the day marking her territory again, mainly on the ground, and Yun Zi was even getting some handstands in there on the wall.

I’ve had a lot of questions from guests coming into the area about why we needed to close the main viewing exhibit for a while. The primary reason for closing the exhibit was to re-roof the building; after removing the old roof, additional structural repairs were completed. We also had a new cool zone pump installed. Whenever we close the exhibit, we try to get as many projects done as possible!

The first thing I noticed was how cut back many of the branches were, and they were able to cut quite a bit of the bamboo behind and around the exhibits. Cutting the branches is important for everyone’s peace of mind; although the pandas don’t jump from branches, we want to make sure that our perimeter is secure and that each bear stays inside. The bamboo trimming is also important for the health of the bamboo, to provide sunlight and ventilation. Several guests have noted that it is much easier to see the cub when he is at the top of the pine tree now that there aren’t as many branches blocking the view. Also, cutting down bamboo makes it easier for keepers to look into exhibits and possibly work with the bears along the back fence line.

Keepers were also able to put fresh soil and mulch down around the enclosure, and the bears are having a blast in it. Bai Yun and the cub have been rolling in the mulch and playing quite a bit in it. Yun Zi has also been rolling around in it, so much so that guests are asking if the pandas are unusually dirty these days. We always like to see the bears being this active, and I know that our Panda Cam viewers and guests love to have these moments on camera.

Mom and cub have been quite entertaining these days, especially when Bai Yun is trying to eat her lunch. One thing I definitely notice with this cub is how patient she is with him. I actually saw Xiao Liwu take a piece of bamboo that she was eating right out of her mouth and sit in her lap while he ate it. I’ve seen previous cubs TRY this with Bai Yun, and they were usually sent rolling down the hill! Stealing her food was something Bai Yun didn’t normally put up with. This cub, in my book, has gotten away with more than any other cub I’ve seen before.

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season and keep an eye on the Panda Cam!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Long Time, No See Bears.

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Long Time, No See Bears

Bai Yun seems to like the spotlight!

Bai Yun seems to like the spotlight!

Working at the San Diego Zoo for nine years now, I’ve been able to have some amazing experiences and opportunities. One of my most recent was to go on a three-month loan to work on the Elephants Odyssey team taking care of dromedary camels, Baja pronghorn, wild burros, and a very sweet Mustang named Mo. As my loan came to an end, I was sad to leave the animals I had come to love but was curious to see how the pandas were doing, especially our little boy, Xiao Liwu!

On my first day back as a panda narrator, Bai Yun was, of course, her charming self, seeming to pose while she slept and giving her admirers good views of her while she ate. I was also lucky enough to see little Xiao Liwu roughhousing with his mother and eating thinner pieces of bamboo with great enthusiasm. When I had left on my loan, he was still just nursing, so this was awesome to see.

Mr. Yun Zi was also climbing up his trees in the neighboring enclosure and putting on a show for guests. One of the trees always sheds a lot of leaves, and it was so fun to watch him shake the tree and see how many leaves he could knock off. When I first put him on exhibit as a new little cub, his favorite “toy” we used to lure him out of his bedroom was a dried leaf. Seeing him play brought back those memories of him jumping in piles of leaves and chewing on crunchy, dried-up leaves.

As we get into the cooler months of the year, it’s always fun to watch the different activity levels of the bears and the fun enrichment that comes with it. Come see us soon!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, What about Gao Gao?

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A Mister for Every Panda

Xiao Liwu gets comfy in the tree.

How can he rest like that?

As we move into warmer days, I know a few people watching Panda Cam have commented about seeing some “smoke” in the exhibit. Do not be alarmed! What you see are water misters we have for each panda exhibit. In the wild, these bears do deal with extreme cold in the winter and in the summer experience extreme humidity, but here in San Diego they have been a little spoiled with the nice weather that they so often enjoy.

As we head into summer, keepers have some tools to ensure that our animals are comfortable and can relax to get a break from the heat. The number one enrichment item for the summer is ice. On those hot days, keepers like to go raid the food stands for their ice to give “their” animals something cool to flop down on or sit in. We also make popsicles for them; pandas get applesauce, honey, and chunks of fruit in water that is frozen overnight. For a lot of the Zoo’s carnivores, we make “bloodsicles,” using the juice from the meat they are given, as a cool treat.

Another tool at our disposal is the mister, and it can do multiple things for the exhibit and animal. A mister can keep the dust down in the enclosure and make it easier for the keepers to clean. It also creates a cool place for the animal to sleep in so they can stay out on exhibit for our guests to see. If the area gets too warm, the pandas do have air-conditioned bedrooms as well. I always like to remind everyone that our animals’ well being does come first.

Everyone stay cool out there!

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