This update was written by panda keeper Nicole MacCorkle.
It has been nearly a week since Mei Xiang and Bao Bao were separated, and we are happy to report that they are both doing well. With any major change in life, there is an adjustment period, but each of our female pandas are settling in and moving forward in the next phase of their lives. As we had expected, weaning was a much easier process for Bao Bao than for her big brother Tai Shan back in 2007. More independent all along than her brother, we have heard less contact calling from Bao Bao, and overall little reaction to her new solitary lifestyle. That being said, there are some vocalizations between our pandas, and that is to be expected. In the wild, a female cub would venture off on her own, away from her mother completely. In captivity, it is not possible to completely move a weaned cub out of earshot, and they do sometimes call to each other and react to each other. Our adult pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian vocalize to each other from time to time as well. The advantage to having Bao Bao near her parents is that she may be able to observe breeding behaviors from them that may help her to be a more successful breeder when she moves to China. We expect Mei Xiang to come into estrus this spring, and accordingly, we are seeing some pre-reproductive behaviors from both her and Tian Tian—more patrolling, less interest in food, increased scent marking and vocalizing, etc.
As everyone is well aware, we have experienced both an ice storm and a snow storm in the Washington, D.C. area within the last week. While the giant pandas are well-equipped for such weather, we humans sadly are not! There are many snow and ice removal activities that need to be worked into our routines here at the zoo, that are not a normal part of our days. Keepers have to chip away at ice that builds up and prevents gates from operating normally. Our facilities staff work round the clock to clear the snow and ice from the park so that we can open walkways to our visitors in a timely manner. Even the bamboo that so beautifully surrounds our panda exhibit pops and snaps loudly as it bends under the increased weight of the ice and snow. Giant pandas rely heavily on their sense of hearing, so they are even more keenly aware of the "new" sounds than we are! Over the last week, we have seen all three of our pandas react to the different sounds around them, and each copes in their own unique way. Viewers may have seen Bao Bao retreat to her safe haven of her hemlock tree well into the night, Mei Xiang running around and vocalizing, or Tian Tian sitting in the snow listening with ears up on high alert, before flopping over for a nap! As I type this in the panda keeper office, I can hear snow removal activities in the background. The pandas, who are all currently indoors, can hear it too, as their hearing is much better than ours, and all three have acclimated to the sounds—they are all eating bamboo, not reacting to the sounds at all.
It has been quite an eventful week here at the panda house, but a good one. All three of our solitary bears are eating well, sleeping well, interacting with their keepers and their environment in species-appropriate ways, and even taking a bit of time to stop and enjoy the snow. These are the behaviors that we keepers, who know the pandas the best, rely on to tell us that all is well in there world. And by every account, it is!