Giant Panda Update
BY Karyl Carmignani
Photography by Ken Bohn
Three years ago, Bai Yun gave birth to her sixth tiny, squawking cub. Barely the size of a Twinkie, Xiao Liwu (pronounced jhou lee woo), or “Mr. Wu,” as he was nicknamed, still exemplifies the meaning of his Chinese name: little gift. Now, as an adolescent bear, he tips the scale at about 134 pounds, which is a bit on the small side for a young male panda, but his father Gao Gao is also on the petite side. His legions of followers, admirers, and keepers are still charmed by Mr. Wu—and the “little” bear is a big hit on Panda Cam and in person.
While he continues to hit developmental milestones, he has proved to be much different from his five older siblings. “He is more physical and also more of a thinker than our previous cubs,” said Jennifer Becerra, senior keeper. And all those panda smarts make it “more challenging to enrich him” as he takes time to assess new situations, while most of the other cubs would dive in with nary a thought to the consequences. “He is much more patient and willing to sit still, unlike the previous cubs,” she added. “But if things don’t go his way, he can throw an impressive temper tantrum!”
Brave New World
Xiao Liwu’s mom, Bai Yun, has intuitively provided the right balance of nurturing attention, affection, and instruction for all her cubs. With her sixth cub, “Wu Bear” (another fond nickname for Mr. Wu), she seemed to sense his independent nature and was content to let him figure things out on his own. Her “free-range parenting” has paid off, as Mr. Wu appears to be the smartest and easiest to train of all her offspring.
For instance, he has already mastered the protocol for blood pressure checks. Keepers and veterinary staff from a few zoos around the country are collecting blood pressure readings on giant pandas to create baseline data. The process includes the bear putting his or her arm into a metal sleeve, which has a hole in the top through which the blood pressure cuff is secured around the animal’s forearm. The bear needs to remain calm during the strange squeezing sensation of the cuff and the jarring Velcro sound, so an accurate reading can be collected. Favorite treats like squirts of honey water (Xiao Liwu’s top pick), as well as pieces of apple, carrot, sweet potato, and soaked biscuits (not dry!) make the training more engaging for the bear.
Mr. Wu is calm, confident, and relaxed throughout the process. Gao Gao also participates in this panda health study. “Hypertension has been noted in several older pandas,” explained Zoo veterinarian Meg Sutherland-Smith, DVM. “We have been monitoring Gao Gao’s blood pressure because of suspected hypertension. In order to get a better idea of normal blood pressure values, Xiao Liwu was trained for blood pressure monitoring to compare to Gao Gao’s.” This important health monitoring would not be possible without the dedication of our panda keepers and registered veterinary technicians.
Just Try It—You’ll Like It
For all of his bravado about some things—like descending trees headfirst—other things were daunting for Mr. Wu early on. His keepers shared that for his first two years, the cub wanted nothing to do with water, “not even dipping a paw into the stuff.” Then one day, he warmed to water—and now he happily bobs for apple pieces in his pool, anoints his bamboo with it, and plays in it. Another surprising component to his personality has been his penchant for bamboo at an early age.
From about 18 months of age, he showed a preference for bamboo, forgoing other calorie-dense food items like biscuits or fresh produce, even as he was nursing very infrequently. He even turned up his cute black nose at the usual fare of ruby-red apples, so keepers resorted to making a tasty puree with biscuits and apples. But one day, there was a surplus of organic Fuji apples in another Zoo area, and they were delivered to the panda exhibit. Mr. Wu took to this type of apple instantly and prefers it to this day.
He’s Got This
His keepers say “Wu Bear” has been a very independent, mellow cub, adding that he has a bit of a daredevil streak. “He goes down trees headfirst and has the little scrapes on his head to show for it,” said Kathy Hawk, senior keeper. But he is no worse for wear! The little bear also has a slight reddish brown hue to his signature black fur, with small white patches on his lower back legs. Now that our “little gift” has turned three years old, he may reveal “a new set of behaviors and energy bursts,” according to Anastasia Jonilionis, panda narrator and keeper at the Zoo. “Not much fazes him, and for the most part—from a keeper’s point of view—he has been the easiest cub to work with.”
Like all of Bai Yun’s cubs, Xiao Liwu will go to China when he is four years old to contribute to the giant panda breeding program. For 20 years, San Diego Zoo Global has been working with Chinese collaborators to save this iconic species. “We are proud to be a part of this wonderful conservation project,” said Jennifer. “Our successful panda breeding at the Zoo is aiding genetic diversity and adding to the giant panda population in China.” And that’s no little gift!