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Celebrating National Panda Day

  • Female giant panda Mei Xiang surveys her yard at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat.

Happy national panda day! Here at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s Asia Trail exhibit, we are celebrating with giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, as well as our red panda pair, Asa and Jackie. We look forward to special days like these because they give us an opportunity to get extra creative with planning our animals’ activities for the day.

It goes without saying that both giant and red pandas are incredibly charismatic and intelligent. Today and every day, we encourage them to keep physically active and mentally sharp by presenting them with a variety of enrichment. This can be anything from sensory experiences (like spices for scent-anointing or a tub full of bubbles for popping), to physical objects and toys (like boomer balls and puzzle feeders), to social interactions (like husbandry training sessions or painting with keepers) and environmental stimuli (like giving them access to a different yard or adding new groundcover to explore).

No matter which activity or experience we give the pandas, it is important that they have an opportunity to use their natural behaviors and choose how to spend their time. In honor of national panda day, let’s take a look at some of our giant and red pandas’ favorite enrichment activities!

Male giant panda Tian Tian with a spool toy (background) and a hay feeder ball (foreground).

Tian Tian is up first! When we set up the pandas’ yards in the morning, we give them a couple of objects to play with and explore. In this photo, Tian Tian has two. The green spool next to him has a hole in the bottom where we put larger foods that are part of his daily diet, such as leafeater biscuits and fruit. To get them out, he spins, shakes or rolls the feeder around the yard until he has gobbled up every piece.

The blue puzzle feeder, while a different shape, fulfills the same purpose. Since the holes are quite large, we fill it with hay to make the leafeater biscuits and fruit harder to get out. Then, Tian Tian uses his nose to push the hay feeder ball around the yard, eating the biscuits as he goes. Both of these feeders give Tian Tian an opportunity to use his problem-solving skills. 

Mei Xiang gets a little help from gravity with her enrichment.

Mei Xiang is a pro at these puzzle feeders. Giant pandas have a pseudo thumb— an elongated and enlarged wrist bone covered with a fleshy pad of skin—which they use to grasp bamboo stalks. Well, she has figured out that this bone comes in handy for grasping puzzle feeders, too. She lies on her back, holds the puzzle feeder over her head and shakes it to release the treats directly into her mouth.

Panda or Pollock? Red panda Asa creates her own work of art.

Like giant pandas, red pandas also have dexterous pseudo thumbs that come in handy for holding bamboo shoots—and paintbrushes! Many animals at the Zoo paint as an enrichment activity, and the pandas are no exception. In this photo, Asa is holding a paintbrush that has been modified to hold a grape (one of Asa’s favorite treats) at the tip of the handle. Using non-toxic, water-based paint, we dip the brush into the pigment, then let her imagination run wild. Not only does this give Asa a creative way to enjoy her favorite food, it also stimulates her tactile, olfactory and visual senses.   

We are always thinking of ways to encourage Asa and Jackie to explore their habitat. In winter 2019, we gave them a red panda-sized teeter-totter. They have a blast running back and forth through the tunnel, and the extra steps are great exercise!

The red pandas enjoy any toy that they can swat around, jump on top of, or carry around their habitat. Weeble-wobbles and kongs top their list. In this video, Asa is playing with one of her favorite puzzle feeders, which is filled with—you guessed it—grapes! But first, she has to use some brain power and energy to move the treat from the puzzle feeder to her belly. She chases, spins and twists the feeder until she reaps her rewards.

Keeper Marty Dearie asks giant panda Mei Xiang to lay on her side for an ultrasound.

Giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are trained to voluntarily participate in their own health care. They know how to present their body parts for examination, place their arm through a sleeve for a blood draw, present their belly for an ultrasound (Mei Xiang) or shoulder for laser therapy (Tian Tian), and the list goes on.

Participation in these training sessions is completely voluntary. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are free to walk away at any time. If they do the behavior asked of them, though, they receive a reward! When Mei Xiang follows keeper Marty Dearie’s cue to lay down on her side, for example, she gets one of her favorite rewards: a squirt of diluted juice or honey water!

This process helps build trust between animals and their keepers. Training sessions are great cognitive exercises as well, since the pandas have to think about the behaviors that keepers are asking them to do.

Keeper Mariel Lally asks red panda Jackie to stand on his rear feet. 

Red pandas also take part in their daily checkups. When we give Jackie the hand signal to “stand up,” we examine his belly for any lumps, bumps, cuts or scrapes, as well as any lameness in his legs. Essentially, we look for any signs that he may need attention from our veterinary team.

Like Asa, Jackie is a big fan of grapes. So for every behavior he completes, he gets to enjoy a yummy treat for his good work.

Asia Trail’s talented volunteers painted some lovely enrichment boxes for Asa (left) and Jackie (right) in honor of Red Panda Day.

Red Panda Day falls on Sept. 19. To celebrate, we gave Asa and Jackie a few presents to open. We filled their boxes with natural enrichment. Pine shavings give the pandas new smells to investigate and textures to feel. 
On special occasions, our Department of Nutrition Sciences goes the extra mile to prepare special treats for our giant pandas and red pandas. In August 2019, Tian Tian turned 22, and our Nutrition team made an amazing cake for our sweet bear. It had all his favorite foods, including diluted juice, apples, pears, cooked sweet potatoes, leaf-eater biscuits, banana and sugar cane. 

We hope you have enjoyed celebrating National Panda Day with Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, Jackie and Asa! During your next visit, be on the lookout for enrichment in action. 

Want to help replenish toys, puzzle feeders and training tools that are a bit run-down yet well loved by the Zoo’s animals? Donate to the Enrichment Trunk. Your support directly benefits the animals at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.