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#PandaStory: A Quick Learner

A few weeks ago, we began husbandry training sessions with our 10-month-old giant panda cub, Xiao Qi Ji. At this point, he is starting to get the hang of target training! We present him with a target—a ball on the end of a dowel—and he instinctively sniffs to investigate. Whenever he touches his nose to the target, he receives a reward. Usually, it is his favorite food: cooked sweet potato!

We do this training in the indoor habitat early in the morning, after Xiao Qi Ji’s mother, Mei Xiang, has shifted outside. Our cub tends to sleep in, but if we ask him to follow the target for a treat, he will shift outside on his own.

  • Assistant curator of giant pandas Laurie Thompson holds a training tool, called a "target," as giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji approaches.

  • Giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji paws at a "target" (training tool) held by assistant curator of giant pandas Laurie Thompson. When he touches his nose to the target, he receives a reward!

  • Giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji touches his nose to the target, held by assistant curator of giant pandas Laurie Thompson.

  • Xiao Qi Ji holds a bamboo shoot.

  • Giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji devours a tasty bamboo shoot.

Recently, Xiao Qi Ji learned a brand new behavior: stand up. To give the cue, keeper Mariel holds her hand in front of his face and points her index finger up to the sky, then slowly raises it. Xiao Qi Ji follows her finger and stands up on his hind legs. The first time he did this behavior successfully, he received a nutrient-rich biscuit and a very enthusiastic “good boy!” Like his parents, Xiao Qi Ji is a quick learner. He mastered this behavior on his second try!

Participation in training is completely voluntary, but Xiao Qi Ji seems to enjoy interacting with us. At this age, our team can safely share a space with the cub. As he continues to grow, though, that will not always be the case. Like his parents, one day Xiao Qi Ji will only interact with us through mesh.

Giant panda Mei Xiang and her son Xiao Qi Ji stand atop a scale in a chute that connects the bears' indoor and outdoor habitats. 

By building his trust in us and teaching him these husbandry behaviors now, we are enabling him to voluntarily participate in his own future healthcare. The “stand up” behavior, for example, gives keepers and vets an up-close view of his torso, front legs and hind legs that we would not see if he was farther away in his habitat. This allows our animal care team to check for any lumps, bumps, scrapes or injuries that may require medical attention.

As we continue to work on “stand up” and start to introduce other husbandry behaviors at the mesh, visitors will be able to watch us interact with Xiao Qi Ji. 

There’s nothing more refreshing for the giant pandas on a hot day than fruitsicles! During the last heat wave, Xiao Qi Ji was introduced to his very own, smaller version of the adults’ favorite treat.  His fruitsicles are made in a smaller cup, with frozen apple juice and water. So far, he seems to really enjoy them, holding them with both his front and back paws, and closing his eyes as he relishes the refreshing treat.

This story appears in the June 25 issue of the Giant Panda Bulletin; read previous cub updates here. Tune in to the Giant Panda Cam. Planning a visit to the Zoo? Reserve your free timed-entry or paid parking pass here.