#PandaStory: A Playful Panda Cub

This update was written by assistant curator of giant pandas Laurie Thompson.

Giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji’s word of the week seems to be: play! Our 4.5-month-old cub’s interest in his surroundings really took off this week. He seems to explore the world with his mouth. He nibbles on everything from his paws and enrichment toys to mother Mei Xiang’s ears. While she is eating bamboo, we often see Xiao Qi Ji try to initiate a play session with a few not-so-ferocious bites. After Mei Xiang shifts outside in the morning, he often emerges from the den to “supervise” the keepers as they clean and get the habitat ready for Mei Xiang’s return. 

Xiao Qi Ji is very deliberate about the paths he takes when traveling up or down the rockwork.

As I mentioned in my last update, Xiao Qi Ji received his first enrichment toys a few weeks ago and plays with them whenever they catch his attention. Those who have followed his sibling’ stories have asked when Xiao Qi Ji will get a rubber tub. With the adults, we often put leaf-eater biscuits or sensory enrichment (like bubbles) into these tubs. Cubs, though, seem to enjoy the exercise of climbing in-and-out or just sitting in this cub-sized space.

We weigh Xiao Qi Ji in one such tub. This week, he tipped the scales at 19.8 pounds (9.04 kilograms). He also receives tubs to play in during the day. He is not quite big enough to get out from underneath a tub if it were to overturn on top of him, so he only receives this enrichment during the day when we can keep an eye on him.

Slapshot straight to the heart. Xiao Qi Ji showed his hometown pride, playing with a giant hockey puck to kick off the Washington Capitals opening game Jan. 14!  

Even though Mei Xiang will not go into estrus this year since she is caring for a cub, Xiao Qi Ji’s father, Tian Tian, is in the middle of rut (male breeding season). He has been very active lately climbing trees, marking his territory and splashing around in pools and hose water while we’re cleaning his enclosure.

For years, we have been adding spices to the pandas’ toys or sprinkling them in different spots around their yards for enrichment and to encourage them to explore. One of their favorite scents is clove spice. This year, we discovered that they prefer when we put the scent directly onto the mesh or their paws. They rub the spice all over themselves, a behavior called scent-anointing. As Xiao Qi Ji gets older, it will be interesting to see if he has the same nose for scents as mom and dad!

Lastly, some exciting news to share. The giant panda team will host a behind-the-scenes livestream with Xiao Qi Ji on Wednesday, Jan. 27 at 1 p.m.! Tune in as we give a guided tour of the panda house, answer some frequently asked questions and give you an up-close virtual encounter with our cub. If you are unable to join us live, a video recording will be available on our website post broadcast. We hope you’ll join us for this special event!  

This story appears in the Jan. 15 issue of the Giant Panda Bulletin. Read previous cub updates here. Please note that the Zoo is temporarily closed as a public health precaution to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.