Gao Gets Physical

Since the news release about Gao Gao’s heart condition, a common question we get is, how are we caring for our boy?

We have been able to do some incredible training with Gao in preparation for physical exams our veterinarians would like to perform on a monthly to quarterly basis in order to monitor him.

Using operant conditioning training (sometimes called ‘clicker training’), we have been able to train Gao for various physical exams. For cardiac ultrasound (imaging of his heart), we have trained Gao to stand in a specially designed crate and accept an ultrasound probe on his girth area. While he is doing this behavior the keeper uses the clicker—when Gao hears the sound, he is rewarded with a favorite food item.

Another behavior he has learned is to lie on his back inside the crate and accept an ultrasound probe on his belly to allow for abdominal ultrasound sessions. His most recently trained behavior is to sit for acupuncture sessions. All these procedures are done in a protected contact situation, meaning there is a protective barrier between human and panda for safety reasons. These procedures are also performed with no sedation: Gao is fully awake, cooperative, and enjoys his sessions. He gets a lot of attention and his favorite food rewards are apple, applesauce, and honey water. Who wouldn’t enjoy that!

Gao recently had a cardiac ultrasound in September and had his first acupuncture session in October. He did great—his training and personality paid off. What a star!

As many of you know, Gao Gao is not on exhibit anymore due to the construction noise in our area. We are sorry you cannot see him, but we need to keep a closer eye on him, to ensure he does not get too stressed. His bedroom area in the back of the Giant Panda Research Station provides a good noise buffer from the outside activities. And it doesn’t hurt that he has his favorite bed of pine shavings and a burlap-sack head pillow for extra comfort!

We have learned a great deal from Gao as to how a giant panda ages and how to effectively care for him in his golden years. We hope to share this information with our colleagues here in the US that house giant pandas, as they will be dealing with the same husbandry issues as their bears age.

Karen Scott is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.