It Takes a Village: An Inside Look at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Program
They’re exotic, lumbering and lovable. And for the handful of zoos in the U.S. that have them for residents, giant pandas are almost always the star attraction.
The San Diego Zoo is now home to three of the endangered creatures: Bai Yun, Gao Gao and their offspring, Yun Zi, who was born at the zoo in 2009.
So what does it really take to care for these bears every day?
Vetstreet caught up with members of the San Diego Zoo’s panda team — an impressive collective of zookeepers, veterinarians and researchers — to get the inside scoop on what it’s like to be among the select few people in the country who get to work with the iconic critters.
Good Morning, Sunshine
For a panda keeper, each day starts bright and early. Two keepers arrive at the zoo at 6 a.m. and get to work cleaning the exhibits and the animals' six bedrooms — as well as feeding the trio their breakfast bamboo.
Their jobs may not be glamorous, but they are rewarding.
“I really enjoy coming into work and having the pandas greet us,” says senior keeper Jennifer Becerra, who's worked at the San Diego Zoo for nearly five years. “Knowing that we are working to make their lives more comfortable is a great feeling.”
The pandas recognize the keepers' uniforms, individual smells and their voices — and the bears bond with certain keepers more than others.
“We all have different relationships with each of the bears,” Becerra says. “When Yun Zi was younger, he seemed to respond to me better and picked me as his favorite.”
Midday Munching and Training
The bears get their second helping of bamboo around 11 a.m., followed by a third feeding at 3 p.m., but Becerra says that they’ll eat throughout the day, anywhere from five minutes to two hours at a time.
“They spend around 12 hours a day foraging and 12 hours resting,” she says, adding that the keepers also work with the pandas on enrichment and training.
“We have different types of enrichment to stimulate an olfactory reaction, a play reaction or a feeding reaction,” Becerra says. “We use various perfumes, spices and colognes for smells. We also offer the bears pine shavings, mulch and dirt to roll in. And they have a range of plastic toys in which we can hide food to stimulate natural foraging behavior.”
As for training, the bears each know how to sit, put their paws up or down, open their mouths, lie down and roll on their sides.
“Our adult female [Bai Yun] will give us a urine sample on command and lay down for an ultrasound,” Becerra says. “And our adult male [Gao Gao] will put his arm through a sleeve, so that our veterinarians can get a blood sample.”
Extracurricular Breeding Activities
With the number of pandas out in the wild dwindling, there are several months out of the year when members of the panda team are tasked with helping the pandas to reproduce. Starting in mid-February, they monitor the female panda for signs that she’s ready to breed — an event that happens only once a year for giant pandas!
“These changes drive behavior that is very different from 'normal' panda behavior,” says Megan Owen, a conservation program manager at the zoo. “In the two weeks leading up to panda breeding, the female will start to scent mark and then vocalize.” They also watch the male panda, Gao Gao, for signs that he has heightened interest in his mate’s scent.
If the team decides that the time is right, they will work to encourage the pandas to mate through carefully timed breeding introductions, all the while keeping an eye out for whether the duo needs to be separated.
Since the panda program began, five giant pandas have been born at the San Diego Zoo. Bai Yun is mom to all five, and Gao Gao is dad to four of them.
Dr. Meg Sutherland-Smith, DVM, one of the zoo's veterinarians, attributes that success to “a strategic approach using science-based information and obtaining a male who was capable of natural breeding.”
Dr. Sutherland-Smith, a member of the team since the first official panda resident arrived at the zoo in 1996, is currently busy giving 20-year-old Bai Yun ultrasounds to see if she might be pregnant with a sixth cub.
Earlier this month, the team began to notice that Bai Yun might be pregnant, with signs that included a drop in her daily bamboo intake. But they also know that such signs could point to a pseudo-pregnancy, which is common in giant pandas.
Given the zoo's track record, the likelihood of a phantom pregnancy seems relatively slim. “Luckily for us, Bai Yun and Gao Gao have this process down to a science,” Owen says.
Retiring for the Night — in Style
By the time the afternoon keeper’s day is winding down, around 6 p.m., the bears are eating their dinner bamboo, playing outside in the cooler temperatures — or turning in for the night.
While on display for the public, Bai Yun, Gao Gao and Yun Zi each have access to an air-conditioned bedroom. When a panda is off exhibit, the bear is secured in a four-room suite that comes complete with a garden room and a climbing structure "to give them privacy, if they want it," Becerra says.
Hopefully, Bai Yun is taking advantage of that quiet time now — the panda team should know in the next few weeks whether a new celebrity cub is on the way.