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San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station

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How Well Do You Know Your Pandas?

Gao Gao

Gao Gao

We will be putting you to the test over the next few weeks. Our pandas will be moving about the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station every few days, and which bear is on which camera will change each time they move. It’s unlikely our intrepid moderator will be able to keep up with all of the rapid changes, so you will have to use your panda identification skills to help figure out which of our black-and-white bears you are currently seeing on the Panda Cam.

Why are we playing round robin with the pandas? It’s because our new bamboo cooler is ready for installation. Thanks to the generous support of you, our panda fans, our urgent plea for funding for a new bamboo cooler was answered. But there is still a lot of work to be done before the pandas can enjoy fresh bamboo straight out of the new cooler you provided for them.

A replacement cooler has been selected, and it’s time to prepare the site where the bamboo chiller will live. This involves many steps, including removal of the old coolers, demolition of the concrete in the area in order to prepare a new foundation for the new cooler, running the utilities to just the right spot, etc. Some of this work involves the use of equipment such as jackhammers, so during the loud portions of the process we will be moving Bai Yun and Gao Gao away from the noise source.

Bai and Gao will make their first move to the classroom area on Monday morning. The regular viewing area will be closed, since there won’t be any bears in that area anyway. Zoo guests will be able to view one of our adult bears in the classroom, and Su Lin and Zhen will be ensconced in their bedroom/garden room area. It will be a bit cozy in the top portion of our facility for a few days, but we feel this is in the best interest of all the animals so as to remove them from the vicinity of any potential stressors. Once the loud portion of this phase of work is complete, Bai and Gao will probably return to their regular exhibit spaces.

Once the site is ready to accept the new cooler, we will be ready to crane the unit into the facility. This should happen around the end of the month. It might necessitate another move to the classroom for our adult bears, but they are troopers who will be fine with this stimulation. Both of them have spent plenty of time in those areas over the years, and taking a few days’ hiatus from the lower areas should work out fine…

…unless, of course, Bai Yun says otherwise. If she shows any signs of estrus whatsoever—and we are monitoring hormones in order to get as early a warning sign as possible—the whole project puts on the breaks and waits. Once again, Momma bear rules.
Thanks again to everyone who helped us make this new cooler a reality. Soon, the bears will be benefiting from your generosity directly. In the meantime, have fun playing panda roulette!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for San Diego Zoo Conservation Research.

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Celebrating Gao Gao

Gao Gao today

Gao Gao today

After the years, the mating seasons, and the cubs, how wonderful it is to be celebrating Gao Gao! In addition to being a super father-er, he is just the best guy. But for those of you new to him, here is his story.

Gao Gao's first day on exhibit, 2003

2003: Gao Gao's first day on exhibit

Found in the wild in March 1993, at less than a year old, Gao was injured and had difficulty walking. His condition indicated that his mother had no longer been caring for him; we’ll never know why. He was brought to the Fengtongzhai Nature Reserve Rescue Center in the Sichuan Province, where his story and progress were followed by children all over China, a tribute to the love that the Chinese people have for their pandas. He recovered well and was returned to the wild in 1994.

Gao Gao, however, began to raid local villages and tear out the crops for food (not a habit to endear him to his neighbors) and it was determined that he was not a good candidate for release. He was returned to the Fengtongzhai Nature Reserve. In January 2001, Gao Gao was sent to the Wolong Panda Conservation Center, where he remained until coming to San Diego on January 15, 2003. Our previous male in residence, Shi Shi, was advancing in age and had recently retired back to China, so there was room and a need for a potential breeding partner for our beloved Bai Yun.

2003: Gao checks out his new home.

2003: Gao checks out his new home.

We had been anticipating Gao’s arrival for some time. I had the privilege of visiting Wolong in 2002 and of course was anxious to meet this soon-to-be newcomer to the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station while there. It was a brief introduction, but oh, my; it was instantly obvious that this was going to be a panda of a different sort! Lively, social, and saucy, he was trying to attract the attention of the panda in the adjacent enclosure: a male. (Very un-panda-like, since adults are solitary by nature.) The next years promised to be very interesting.

2003: Gao enjoys a different perspective.

2003: Gao enjoys a different perspective.

And so they have been. After his arrival and mandatory quarantine, Gao Gao made his debut. (Animals coming into the Zoo are required to be initially separated from the rest of the collection so that their health can be certified, their keepers can get to know them, and their transition to their new home can be as easy as possible.) Active and inquisitive, Gao Gao adjusted well to his surroundings, and soon after his arrival, Bai Yun began to enter her estrus.

2003: Gao's first day on exhibit

2003: Gao's first day on exhibit.

The name “Gao Gao” translates to “High High” or “Tall Tall,” in part because he is on the small side for a male giant panda, although within the range of normal adult panda sizes. His interest and enthusiasm proved to live up to his name, however, as Bai’s estrus progressed. After a careful introduction over the next weeks, Bai and Gao mated successfully; this mating resulted in the birth of Mei Sheng August 19, 2003, earning Gao a place in Zoo history as the first giant panda male to demonstrate natural mating here and the nickname “Gao Gao the Great.” He was, at that time, one of fewer than 10 proven breeder males in managed care and, as a wild-born panda, was genetically vey important to the future of his species. Gao and Bai mated again successfully in 2005 (Su Lin) and 2007 (Zhen Zhen). It is now 2009 and we look forward with cautious optimism to Bai Yun’s next estrus and another possible mating season.

The excitement of baby pandas and mother/cub interactions often overwhelms, but it’s important to remember that without Gao Gao this would not have been possible. He is much loved by everyone here, as much for his personality and eagerness to cooperate with his keepers as for his biological importance. Gao is very much a “guy,” often oblivious to the rest of the world (except for his bamboo, of course). We’ve seen, however, his acrobatic scent-marking, love for the rare honey treat, dislike of earthquake temblors, (so far minor, but not uncommon in Southern California), and increasing intolerance of serious rain: he now shelters inside the hollow tree during downpours. Gao has also been a memorable ambassador for giant pandas worldwide, as visitors entering the Giant Panda Research Station often see him as their “first panda” and gasp, sigh, and, yes, even cry at the sight of him.

Gao Gao is truly “Big Big” in our hearts and the panda world, and we are excited to honor the anniversary of his arrival in San Diego to treat him and showcase his importance in the efforts to conserve his species. Come by or visit Panda Cam on Wednesday, January 21, and join in this Day of Gao!

Ellie Rosenbaum is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo.