Caring for a Gentle Giant

As our guests come to the San Diego Zoo and get a peek at Bai Yun and Mr. Wu, there is always the question about Gao Gao. Rest assured he is well and our keeper staff continue to take excellent care of him. Since there is construction going on around, and over the Panda Station, Gao Gao was moved to another area near our on-grounds hospital. He can see a lot of what is going on around him, and he has been quite interested in the daily coming and going of staff.

Gao Gao has received treatment over the years for a number of things, and through every procedure and new diagnosis our staff is able to gain more information to take better care of animals now and in the future. Gao Gao is receiving treatment for a heart condition (pulmonic stenosis); he receives oral medication and staff can monitor his heart with weekly blood pressure sessions. As someone who has been involved with these blood pressure sessions, it always impresses me how tolerant Gao Gao is with our observations and treatments. You may also remember that Gao Gao underwent an ultrasound on his chest for a cardiologist brought in to work with staff. Keepers spent quite a bit of time working with Gao Gao making sure that he was ready, and I remember that the most tricky part was getting him to stand the entire time the cardiologist needed to look at his heart.

Gao Gao has undergone procedures in the past for testicular cancer, and has had an exploratory procedure for his digestive system. Gao Gao’s dental condition has been monitored, too; his back molars have worn down over the years, so our keeper staff makes a “bread” for him every morning and his bamboo is broken into small sticks to make it easier for him to chew. This altered diet has been working for him, and he is currently weighing in at 172.7 pounds (78.5 kilograms). Since we know that worn down teeth can be a problem for older bears, our nutritionists have advised that we pre-crack the bamboo so we save their teeth the best we can.

Information we gain from our experience from Gao Gao can be used when we look at other bears, just as we are able to use information from caring for Shi Shi our previous male. Shi Shi was the original male that came to the Zoo in 1996 with Bai Yun. He is the sire of Hua Mei (through artificial insemination) and during his time here, our staff got a taste of working with a geriatric panda. When Shi Shi returned to China, Gao Gao came to San Diego.

As Gao Gao gets older, our staff is able to read his behavior and communicate effectively with veterinary staff to ensure that he is comfortable and thriving. We appreciate the outpouring of love and support for Gao Gao. We will do our best to keep you updated on anything going on with Gao Gao—and all the bears.

Anastasia Jonilionis is a panda narrator and keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous blog, A Panda’s Sense of Place.