An Unforgettable Birthday Party for Mama Bear San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Bai Yun Turns 24

Bai Yun  celebrated her 24th birthday with a tasty "cake" made of applesauce and apple chunks.

Bai Yun celebrated her 24th birthday with a tasty “cake” made of applesauce and apple chunks.

Excitement filled the air at the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Trek today as keepers and panda fans gathered to wish a happy 24th birthday to giant panda matriarch, Bai Yun (pronounced “by yoon”). The mother of six came out of her den to find a delicious slushy ice cake made with applesauce and filled with chunks of apples, carrots, and yams.

Animal care staff decorated her exhibit with gift boxes filled with hay and pine shavings. Bamboo feeders were scattered about, and staff sprinkled some of her favorite scents: cinnamon, wintergreen, peppermint, and spearmint, which she rubbed all over her face. Amused fans watched as Bai bounced on her swing, and licked up the delicious honey sprinkled there. Apples were also tossed into her pool and she had a fun time bobbing for them.

Keepers describe the birthday bear as a superstar. They say she was a curious, playful youngster, delighting the crowds with her acrobatic skills. Later in life, she proved what an amazing mother she could be, always taking great care of her cubs, playing rough-and-tumble games, and overall showering them with attention.

Bai Yun arrived at the San Diego Zoo in September 1996. Since then, she has helped researchers and keepers learn more about panda behavior, pregnancy, birth, and maternal care. She has given birth to six cubs: Hua Mei in 1999, Mei Sheng in 2003, Su Lin in 2005, Zhen Zhen in 2007, Yun Zi in 2009, and Xiao Liwu in 2012.

Bai recently returned to the front exhibit at Panda Trek after being under pregnancy watch for the past six months. After an exam last month, veterinarian staff confirmed she wasn’t pregnant. Bai is one of the oldest pandas known to have given birth.

The San Diego Zoo is home to three giant pandas: Bai Yun, her son Xiao Liwu, and her mate, Gao Gao. Giant pandas are on loan to the San Diego Zoo from the People’s Republic of China for conservation studies of this endangered species. To help San Diego Zoo Global lead the fight against extinction and to celebrate Bai Yun’s birthday, please consider becoming a Hero for Wildlife by making a monthly donation to San Diego Zoo Global’s Wildlife Conservancy at www.endextinction.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.

Photo taken on Sept. 7, 2015, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo


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.


Happy Anniversary, Gao Gao!

Celebrating a dozen delightful years with Gao Gao!

January 15, 2015 marks a dozen delightful years with Gao Gao at the Zoo!

Gao Gao’s 12th anniversary (he arrived in San Diego Jan. 15, 2003) is coming up at the San Diego Zoo and what a glorious time it has been. He has been the perfect mate for Bai Yun and has fathered five cubs (Mei Sheng, Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, Yun Zi, and Xiao Liwu). He may be small but he has a huge personality and presence among his keepers. As he always enjoys and demands his daily scratches from us.

This Thursday, Gao Gao will have a quiet anniversary celebration in the Classroom Exhibit with some special enrichment throughout the day that will include his favorite scents: cinnamon spice, ginseng root perfume, and rubbing alcohol!. He does not get an ice cake anymore due to his old teeth, but he will get extra apples and honey, and my favorite part of the day—extra scratches from his keepers.

Lately, Gao Gao has preferred the quiet life of living in the classroom exhibits with access to his bedroom whenever he desires. His exhibit is not open to the public and only gets visits by early morning tours and special behind the scenes events. You can see him on Panda Cam Daily from 6:30a.m. until 2:30p.m. PST.

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Party for Mr. Wu.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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?


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.