Giant panda Bai Yun has continued to lengthen her absences from the den. The primary reason for this is that she is now eating much more than she was a week ago. For her first few den departures, she would be gone only long enough to grab a drink and perhaps eliminate waste. Now she is taking time to feed herself. This morning, I watched her wolf down a pile of biscuits like nobody’s business! See below for video of the cub during this time.
Her cub has gotten used to her absences. For much of the time Bai Yun is out, the youngster will rest in the den or move about gently on the floor, croaking quietly. No more flailing and screaming while Momma is away. While Bai Yun ate biscuits today, the cub did emit a few squawks, a vocalization of higher intensity than croaks. Despite this, our girl continued to feed. Clearly, she was unconcerned about a few complaints from the cub.
Keepers have begun to test interactions with Bai Yun at the gate of her sun room. When she is out feeding, the keeper approaches the mesh of the door and gently calls to her. Bai Yun can choose to interact or not. If she does, the keeper hand feeds her with a steady drip of apples and carrots. The object is to see how long Bai Yun is comfortable focusing on the keeper. It also demonstrates to us that Bai Yun is emerging from the solitude of her den world and is ready to move toward a more regular husbandry routine.
Once Bai Yun appears comfortable with these interactions, the next step is to close the door between her bedroom and sun room, effectively limiting her access to the den. Today I watched as one keeper held her attention at the door while another slowly inched the door closed. Bai Yun glanced at the door as it shut but returned her focus to the keeper and her treats. The door remained closed for two minutes and was then opened again. Our girl did great, staying calm and relaxed through the whole experience. In fact, even though the door was open to her, Bai Yun remained in the sun room for a few minutes more before returning to the den.
Once the keepers are able to keep Bai Yun calm and relaxed for 5 to 10 minutes, we will be ready for our first cub exam. As one keeper holds Bai Yun in the sun room with treats, another keeper will enter the bedroom through a different door and retrieve the cub from the den. The first few exams will be very brief, lasting only a few minutes. This will ensure that we can ease both mother and cub into the regular pattern of cub exams that will occur for the next year of this youngster’s life.
Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Pandas: You Asked, We Answer.