This update was written by keeper Nicole MacCorkle
Bao Bao is participating in regular training sessions with her keepers, but as always, only on her terms. On the days when she’s focused, we make real progress—we build on old behaviors she has mastered, and learn new behaviors.
One behavior we have been continually building on is targeting. Bao Bao has been touching her nose to the target since she was about 5 months old. Now she can follow the target partway inside from the outdoor yard. And she stands on her hind legs when keepers ask. She certainly recognizes her name (when called by familiar voices) but doesn’t reliably respond yet, the way her parents do. As a matter of fact, even when Mei Xiang calls to her by bleating, Bao Bao doesn’t always respond to her! Interestingly, she does follow Mei outside most days, and rarely has to be carried onto the patio by the keepers anymore. We just need to find a way to motivate her to do the reverse in the afternoons.
Over the years we have trained our giant pandas to do amazing husbandry behaviors, and Bao Bao certainly has as much potential as anyone else in her family. Before she can do as many behaviors as Mei or Tian, we must capture and consistently be able to hold her interest in training.
There are a couple of challenges in working with Bao Bao. Those of us who worked with Tai Shan remember how interested he was in interacting with his keepers, even from a very young age. Giant panda biologist, Laurie Thompson, sums it up very well: “We were a novelty for Tai Shan. He wanted to see where we were and what we were doing.” Bao Bao has always been more standoffish where we are concerned, and is less interested in interacting with us. It highlights the fact that although Bao Bao and Tai Shan are both giant pandas, and even full siblings, they are unique individuals.
The second challenge has been finding just the right training reward for Bao Bao. We have used cooked sweet potato, corn syrup, and dilute apple juice but with only mixed results at best. She doesn’t seem very interested in leaf eater biscuits yet (one of the first training rewards we used for big brother, Tai), and because she is still under a year old, we cannot use honey. We have even tried skipping the food as a reward altogether, and opted for favored toys, such as her pink jolly ball or the red ping toy—but they haven’t worked either. Recently, we have been trying to motivate her with miniature versions of fruitsicles, and those seem to be holding her interest more than anything else we’ve tried.
For Bao Bao, at nearly 11 months old, her favorite activity still seems to be sleeping high up in one of her favorite trees, swaying in the breeze, for hours on end. She often seems to be too busy relaxing to be bothered by such things as targets or keepers calling her inside for the evening. The only thing that seems to reliably bring her down out of her tree is a rumbling tummy, and when that happens she wants to nurse.
There are some days when she comes in without assistance, either by following her mom, or just by climbing down and walking inside on her own. There have even been a few days recently when she responded to us as we called to her, and moved toward us all the way back to the patio just like the adults! Those desired behaviors are “jackpotted” with lots of praise and some extra yummy goodies (i.e. mini fruitsicles!) in the hopes that they will become second nature to her. In the meantime, on the days when she chooses to linger outside we get to spend extra time interacting with her. But those days are dwindling as she grows.
We’ve received many questions from our many curious panda fans! In this panda update, keeper Nicole MacCorkle answers questions we have received.
What is in the paper bags that you give the pandas?
Keepers put enrichment items in brown paper bags for the pandas. The bears rip open the bags and find treats inside. We try to vary the pandas’ enrichment as much as possible, so the contents of the bag are different each day. Sometimes a bag may contain a fruitsicle; other days it may have leaf eater biscuits or other diet items.
Where is Bao Bao’s pink Jolly Ball?
Bao Bao still has a pink Jolly Ball. This jolly ball is actually her second, since Mei Xiang punctured her first ball. For that reason, Bao Bao can only play with it when she is separated from Mei Xiang. We don’t want either of them to ingest any of the plastic. The other plastic toys that you see in the panda enclosures are made of a sturdier plastic, and can be left in with the bears at all times.
Why does Mei Xiang steal Bao Bao’s treats, bamboo shoots, etc?
Although Mei Xiang is an excellent mother, she does enjoy her food! Mei Xiang doesn't usually share her favorite food items, even with her own cubs, much like other giant panda mothers. Mei’s priority is to get her own nourishment so she can produce milk for Bao Bao. Bao Bao is still getting most of her nutrition from Mei’s milk at this point, although she is regularly eating solids as well. We give both Mei Xiang and Bao Bao treats, but since Mei usually finishes hers first, she often gets to finish whatever Bao Bao hasn’t consumed, but that will change as Bao Bao grows.
Can Bao Bao get herself down from a ledge, etc? Can she fall? How do you get her down?
Giant panda cubs are excellent climbers. They are very muscular, and have extremely strong grips that help them rest in trees or other high places. It is possible for them to fall, but they are built to withstand most falls. In the wild, it would be common for a panda cub to spend the majority of the day in a tree, while its mother foraged for bamboo nearby. The tree provides a safe hiding spot for a potentially vulnerable cub.
Bao Bao, like other panda cubs, spends many hours in her tree each day. She doesn’t get stuck, but does sometimes remain in the trees longer than Mei Xiang and her keepers would like. Most days, she goes outside by 8 a.m., explores for a bit, and then finds a comfy perch high in a tree where she remains until she decides to come down.
We are focusing on training Bao Bao to shift like the adults, and Mei Xiang is an important part of that process. Mother pandas make a contact call (which is referred to as a bleat) to their cubs, so we encourage Mei Xiang to bleat to Bao Bao (essentially calling her down out of the tree). So far, we are having mixed success. Mei’s bleats, however, are more effective than keepers calling Bao Bao at the end of the day.
For a longer update on training with Bao Bao, stay tuned! We’ll have a full update on her progress soon.
It's been a busy few weeks at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat. Bao Bao is now going outside with Mei Xiang regularly in the morning. She has been busy exploring, and Smithsonian Channel captured her first attempt at climbing a tree. Now she climbs high in the trees in Mei Xiang's yard without any hesitation, which is exactly what giant panda cubs would do in the wild. As with any new climber, she's had a few falls, but panda cubs are built to withstand them and Bao Bao is no exception. In addition to the keepers, Mei also has an ever watchful eye on her cub and is always ready to help if Bao Bao needs her. Part of going outside is learning to come back inside. But Bao Bao has not quite mastered shifting back inside at the end of the day. Sometimes she follows Mei straight inside and other times she chooses to stay up in the trees.
Bao Bao may not be shifting inside like an adult panda yet, but she started tasting more foods aside from sweet potato. Keepers have started giving her mini fruitsicles—small versions of the frozen fruit-filled treats Mei Xiang and Tian Tian recieve. Bao Bao enjoys them, but so does Mei. She usually helps Bao Bao finish the last bites of her fruitsicles.
It was an exciting day at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat! Bao Bao made her first excursion outside with Mei Xiang. Keepers said at first she was a little hesitant, but after a little reassurance from mom she wandered into the outdoor yard.
Once outside Bao Bao was busy exploring, but she never strayed far from Mei Xiang's side. While Mei munched on bamboo Bao Bao tested out her climbing skills on one of the smaller trees. She even took a cue from Mei and sat down in the grass with a piece of bamboo mimicking her mom eating. After about two hours Bao Bao went back inside and slept for a few hours.
Visitors to the panda habitat may be able to see Bao Bao outside in the morning around 8 a.m. Keepers will give her and Mei Xiang access outside each morning, but it will be Bao Bao's choice to go outside.
Bao Bao may be exploring the great outdoors soon! Bao Bao will have access to her mother Mei Xiang’s larger yard this week beginning each day around 8 a.m., weather depending. She will be given the option to explore outside with her mother if the temperature is at least 35 degrees Fahrenheit with no precipitation. Although Bao Bao will have the option to go outside, she may decide to stay inside the panda house. It may take several weeks before Bao Bao is venturing outside with Mei Xiang regularly.
In preparation for Bao Bao’s outdoor debut, keepers have cub-proofed the giant panda yards. Giant pandas are very adept climbers, and cubs especially spend time climbing trees. The trees in Mei Xiang’s yard have been collared, and some tree limbs have been trimmed for Bao Bao's safety. Keepers have placed bales of hay around the grotto and yard to cushion any potential falls.
This update was written by keeper Nicole MacCorkle.
Everyone here in the David M.Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat is eager for spring to finally arrive. Even the pandas seem less interested in the snow with each winter storm, spending less time playing in it than they did earlier in the winter. As the last of the winter’s snow and ice finally melt away, we can look forward to Bao Bao playing in her yard in the very near future. The yards are cub-proofed and ready whenever she and Mei Xiang go out. But before Bao Bao can venture outside, we have to finish the construction on the fence between Mei Xiang and Tian Tian’s outdoor panda yards, which will be very soon.
On some of the rare, milder days earlier this winter before the fence construction started, we gave Bao Bao the opportunity to venture outdoors, but Mei Xiang quickly herded her back into their indoor enclosures, never letting her explore past the patio area. Bao Bao has been busy inside, perfecting her climbing skills, which will come in very handy when she does go outside. She can now climb quickly and easily up to the highest parts of the rockwork by herself. With her increased motor skills, and ever-increasing size (just over 24 pounds at her last weigh-in), she is becoming much more independent.
Visitors may have noticed keepers wearing masks the past couple of weeks. Another unpleasant sign of the winter is the lingering risk of contracting influenza. This season has been a particularly bad one in the DC metro area, and we are taking precautions to be sure that our giant pandas don’t contract it. The adult pandas do not seem to mind the masks, but Bao Bao is a little uneasy around them. For that reason, as we acclimate her to them, we are being less hands on with her than in the past.
Tian Tian is going to have his full annual physical exam next week. Because the exam takes place inside the panda house and Tian Tian is anesthetized for the procedure, the panda house will be closed Wednesday March 19. As usual, Mei Xiang will have access to her enclosures inside the panda house and to her outdoor yards. Visitors may be able to see her in the morning and afternoon. Mei Xiang and Bao Bao will of course be visible on the panda cams !
We are so happy that all of our panda fans have been following Bao Bao, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian so closely! Now that Bao Bao is just over six months old we will be sending giant panda updates once a month instead of bi-weekly. We will continue to update our panda fans on major milestones, or special news as soon as they happen. In the meantime, Bao Bao's daily routine remains much the same these days - sleeping, playing and growing!
One of the keys to raising a healthy giant panda cub is mother’s milk. Since her birth on August 23, Bao Bao has grown from 4.8 ounces to just over 20 pounds. She’s packed on the pounds almost exclusively by nursing from Mei Xiang; she's only recently started to eat sweet potato and maybe a little bamboo. Zoo scientists can learn much from panda milk, and with help from keepers they are banking small samples from Mei Xiang. In this update giant panda keeper, Juan Rodriguez, explains how keepers collect milk samples from Mei Xiang.
With the birth of Bao Bao, Mei Xiang has been producing a lot of milk, so we developed a procedure for collecting the extra milk. This would allow us to not only study the nutrients in giant panda milk, but to have some milk stored in case future cubs were to need supplemental feedings. We knew collecting milk would be a complicated process, but we were fortunate enough to be able to see how our colleagues around the world do it.
Our trip to China in August 2013 allowed me and one of my fellow panda keepers to see firsthand how our Chinese colleagues collect milk from their lactating females. We also have the advantage of experience at the Zoo. Our keeper Nicole MacCorkle and biologist Laurie Thompson, were here for the birth of our last surviving cub in 2005.
Before we could collect milk from Mei Xiang, we needed a place to do it. So, we made a milking station. Initially, the concept for the milking station was developed by giant panda caretaker Marty Dearie. He designed an area along the bars of Mei Xiang’s den where a metal lip juts out approximately 4 inches. Just enough for her to comfortably place her elbows on the lip. The bars also give us the added security of protecting our hands and arms during the milking session.
The first step in the milking process is to get Mei to walk over to the milking station. Once at the station the animal keeper signals her to stand up on her hind legs and place her front paws up as high as she can. Then a second keeper is begins collecting milk from her.
So far we have collected milk from her three times and have accumulated approximately 3 to 5 milliliters.
This update was written by giant panda keeper Nicole MacCorkle.
Bao Bao continues to grow steadily, and is becoming more active and inquisitive with each passing day. Therefore, keepers are maximizing this time while she is little and playful to lay the groundwork for future positive reinforcement training. Our adult pandas routinely participate in voluntary blood draws, blood pressure checks, ultrasounds and, when needed, radiographs. They also receive their preventive vaccinations in the training cage, all without anesthesia. Obviously, Bao Bao is not yet ready for such “grown up” behaviors now, but we are laying a foundation to build upon as we work toward our training goals for her.
We still go in with her each day, and often have to relocate her in the mornings as we try to get the indoor enclosures cleaned, and so that visitors can see her when the building opens. She is acclimating to our presence and the sound of our voices, and seems to be increasingly interested in what we are doing around her. Now is the time to engage her, and to work on her responding to us and moving in our direction when we call her name, so that someday soon, she will be able to shift on and off exhibit like her parents do. Bao Bao has also sampled some dilute apple juice, and cooked sweet potato, which will later be used as training rewards.
At first our training goals will be simple, like shifting when called, and climbing onto the scale to be weighed (which she seems to have already mastered, at least with the small cub scale!) We are beginning to work on things like target training, which will lead into more advanced husbandry behaviors. If Bao Bao is anything like her parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, and her big brother Tai Shan, and is eager to train, then the sky is the limit!
Bao Bao is proving to be most active in the early mornings and in the midafternoon. Today she and Mei Xiang enjoyed an extended play session inside the panda house. Bao Bao pounced on Mei's head several times and even wrestled with a stalk of bamboo. All the excitement wore her out, and she was sound asleep in the den about an hour later.
Bao Bao's debut for the general public is Saturday, Jan. 18. The panda house will extend its hours in an attempt to accommodate the visitors expected to come see Bao Bao. It will be open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from Jan. 18 through Jan. 20, and visitors will be allowed into the house in small groups to avoid overcrowding on a first-come, first-served basis. Bao Bao and Mei Xiang will have access to the den during those times, and may choose to spend time in it instead of on exhibit. Beginning Jan. 21 the panda house will open to FONZ members only from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. At 10 a.m. the panda house will open to the general public.
To commemorate Bao Bao’s debut, 30 lucky Instagrammers who follow @SmithsonianZoo on Instagram will be given special early access to the panda house to see Bao Bao Saturday, Feb. 1, for an InstaMeet or “#ZooMeet.” The 30 participants will be chosen from Instagrammers who register for the InstaMeet and will have half an hour to view and take photos of Bao Bao before the panda house opens to the public. Members of the panda team will also be available to answer questions. Registration for the InstaMeet is now open. Instagrammers chosen to attend the special opportunity will be notified by Jan. 27. They will be sharing their photos Feb. 1, using #ZooMeet and #Panda. Additional information on the InstaMeet and registration is posted to the Zoo’s website.
This panda update was written by keeper Nicole MacCorkle.
Like father, like daughter. Panda cam viewers may have noticed something interesting about Bao Bao’s resting habits—she frequently sleeps on her back, which is the preferred position for her dad Tian Tian as well. Early on a recent morning, she was observed sleeping on her back, scratching her belly exactly the way her dad does. For that moment in time, she looked just like a little mini Tian Tian!
Bao Bao’s coordination and climbing abilities are improving each day, and now she spends considerable time just exploring her enclosures, always under Mei Xiang’s watchful eye, of course. It won’t be long now until Bao Bao begins exploring the great outdoors as well, and that’s when all of the fun and extreme panda cub cuteness will really begin! Mei Xiang will really be busy keeping up with Bao Bao and all of her adventures in the new year.
Bao Bao will make her public debut Jan. 18. The panda house at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat will be open from 8 a.m to 4:30 p.m. from Jan. 18 to Jan. 20. Beginning Jan. 21 it will be open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
After four months of watching her grow on the panda cams, visitors to the Smithsonian's National Zoo will be able to visit Bao Bao starting January 18. Members of Friends of the National Zoo will be able to visit Bao Bao exclusively at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat from January 11 to January 17.
The amount of time Bao Bao and Mei Xiang will be on exhibit each day will depend on the bears' behavior. In the first few weeks they may not be on exhibit for long periods of time; they will spend more time on exhibit as Bao Bao gets older. They will also have access to the den, where Bao Bao has spent much of the past few months, and may choose to spend time in it instead of in public viewing areas.
In preparation for her debut, this morning Bao Bao is appearing before members of the media.
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