One year ago, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo welcomed Xiao Qi Ji — a precious giant panda born in the midst of a global pandemic. Fans who follow the beloved bear’s #PandaStory from the beginning reveled in watching him grow into the playful and curious cub he is today. As the giant panda team prepares to celebrate Xiao Qi Ji’s first birthday Aug. 21, take a look back at his top 12 milestones that left panda fans around the world in awe and "aww."
1. First Veterinary Exam
At 6:35 p.m. Aug. 21, 2020, a precious giant panda cub arrived! Mother Mei Xiang immediately picked up her cub and cuddled it close. During those first critical days, she focused all her attention on caring for her newborn.
The cub gained weight and grew into the pandas’ signature "plump," a sign that it was getting good nutrition from Mei Xiang’s milk. On Sept. 19, Zoo veterinarians conducted the newborn’s first medical exam. The veterinary team listened to the cub’s heart and lungs, palpated its stomach, tested its suckle reflex and moved all four limbs to assess its musculoskeletal development. All signs pointed to a healthy and strong bear!
Veterinarians took a quick swab of the cub’s cheek for DNA analysis. Outwardly, male and female cubs appear similar at birth, so a genetic test was the most accurate way to determine whether the cub was a male or female. They brought the swab to the Zoo’s Center for Conservation Genomics, where Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute scientists analyzed the cub’s DNA to confirm its sex. After weeks of anticipation, Zoo scientists determined the giant panda cub was a male!
2. First Steps
Thanks to fans all over the world, the Zoo’s giant panda cub received his name Nov. 23 — Xiao Qi Ji, which means “little miracle” in Mandarin Chinese.
Then, at 3 months and 5 days old, Xiao Qi Ji took his first steps! On Thanksgiving morning, he rested just outside the den while his mother slept inside. After months of practice, he positioned all four feet beneath him and took a few wobbly steps toward her before toppling over.
3. First Toys
In January 2021, the 4-month-old cub’s interest in his surroundings really took off. Keepers gave him two toys to investigate: a small red egg (perfectly sized for a panda cub) and an empty PVC puzzle feeder.
These enrichment items encourage the giant pandas to keep physically active and mentally sharp; they also give the bears an opportunity to use their natural behaviors and choose how to spend their time.
When Xiao Qi Ji explored the habitat and happened upon these toys, he usually stopped for a few minutes to paw at them, pick them up and give them a nibble. At that age, Hei seemed to explore the world with his mouth and often tried to initiate a play session with a few not-so-ferocious bites.. Xiao Qi J nibbled on everything from his paws and enrichment toys to Mei Xiang’s ears!
4. First Taste of Sweet Potato
The day Xiao Qi Ji turned 5 months old, keepers decided to introduce him to something new. Using a piece of bamboo shred as a spoon, they scraped some cooked sweet potato onto the end, then handed it over to Xiao Qi Ji. He grabbed the bamboo in his mouth, paused for a moment to take in the new taste, then lay back and licked the remainder. When they offered him more, he wouldn’t stop nibbling on it!
Xiao Qi Ji clearly enjoyed this new treat, which is not surprising since both Mei Xiang and his father, Tian Tian, are also fond of sweet potatoes. In addition to bamboo, nutrient-rich biscuits, carrots and apples, sweet potatoes are part of our pandas’ balanced diet.
5. First Virtual Encounter With Fans
On Jan. 27, the giant panda team hosted their first-ever virtual encounter with Xiao Qi Ji. During the live broadcast, they gave him a bright green ball with a small handle. Since it is made from a softer material than the adults’ toys, it’s perfect for him to chew on and sink his claws into. It is also scented like green apple, providing some olfactory enrichment, too! During the livestream, this ball was at the center of a friendly game of tug-of-war between Xiao Qi Ji and keeper Marty Dearie.
6. First Encounter With Snow
On Sunday, Jan. 31, giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji experienced yet another big milestone — his first encounter with snow! As the flakes were falling, the panda team brought Xiao Qi Ji out of the indoor enclosure to a snow-covered patio behind-the-scenes. He seemed unsure about it at first and stood there for a moment to take it all in. Keeper Stacey Tabellario built him his own panda-cub-sized snowman. He sniffed it before taking a frosty bite. He explored the area for about five minutes before keepers took him back inside. Although his trip was a short one, he seemed to have a good time.
7. First Trip Outside
Just a few days shy of turning 6 months old, giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji accompanied Mei Xiang into their outdoor habitat for the first time. Around 7:30 a.m. Feb. 16, the giant panda team opened the door that separates their indoor and outdoor habitats.
Much like his siblings Tai Shan, Bao Bao and Bei Bei were during their first outings, Xiao Qi Ji was cautious yet curious. Mostly, he stayed on the sidewalk at the back of the yard. Mei Xiang continued to calmly eat while her son ventured onto the grass and pawed at one of their enrichment toys. He walked along the wall of the panda house, sniffed the doors and gates and took in all the new sights and smells.
Xiao Qi Ji peeked into the “howdy” window that looks into his father Tian Tian’s yard. He also tested out his climbing skills on the mesh that separates the keeper area from the bears’ yard, but he didn’t get far before he lost his grip and dropped just a few inches to the ground below. Even though Xiao Qi Ji stayed close to “home base,” his first outing in the yard was successful!
8. Climbing to New Heights
Heading into spring, 7-month-old Xiao Qi Ji was getting the hang of the daily routine at the Panda House and explored more of his outdoor habitat. On March 12, Mei Xiang took him on a tour of the moat—the area filled with greenery at the front of their habitat. That excursion seemed to boost Xiao Qi Ji’s confidence! Following that field trip, he explored other areas of the yard daily — even on his own. Xiao Qi Ji also figured out how to use the logs as a pathway and followed them to the top of the grotto!
9. Panda Cub Preschool
When Xiao Qi Ji was around 8 months old, the giant panda team began to train him to voluntarily participate in his own healthcare. Using positive reinforcement training, keepers teach our pandas behaviors that allow them to monitor the bears’ overall health and examine them up close.
Participation in these activities is always voluntary, but the pandas know they will receive a favorite treat as a reward if they participate. At this age, Xiao Qi Ji eats nearly all of the same foods that his parents eat — bamboo, sweet potato, nutrient-rich fiber biscuits, pears and apples — on a regular basis. This well-balanced diet is helping him grow big and strong.
One of the first behaviors animals learn is to “target.” Keepers present the pandas with a buoy on a stick, and they instinctively sniff to investigate the new, interesting object. Every time Xiao Qi Ji touched his nose to the buoy, keepers said “good job” and gave him a treat — usually a piece of sweet potato, apple or pear.
10. Xiao Qi Ji Greets His Fans
When our 9-month-old giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji made his first appearance to visitors May 21, he went about his daily routine and never skipped a beat. He napped in the canopy of his favorite tree in the morning. Then, in the early afternoon, he trotted inside the Panda House and played with Mei Xiang while she rested on the rockwork.
11. A Quick Learner
At 10 months old, Xiao Qi Ji learned a brand new behavior: stand up. To give the cue, giant panda keeper Mariel Lally 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!
The “stand up” behavior gives keepers and vets an up-close view of his torso, front legs and hind legs that they 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.
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 them through mesh.
Xiao Qi Ji has a knack for turning anything into a fun toy — from enrichment items, to pieces of bamboo, to sticks that he finds outside. Our 11-month-old cub is also inquisitive. When Xiao Qi Ji investigates his environment, he tends to be more cautious than his brothers and sister were. Whether climbing up or down, he takes his time and is careful about his footing. He very rarely misses a step!
All around, Xiao Qi Ji seems to make good choices. He comes indoors (where there is air conditioning) when the heat of the day sets in. He readily comes to keepers when they call his name, a behavior known as “recalling.”
Last, but not least, he has become a super star with husbandry training. He mastered a few behaviors, including target training, climbing upon a scale and standing up on cue. Recently, keepers introduced a new behavior, voluntary blood draw training, which allows them to monitor his health further. They are still in the beginning stages of this behavior, so stay tuned for updates as he masters it.
This past year has been a challenging one, in many respects, but watching this little cub develop into the smart, observant, inquisitive and goofy bear he is today has brought our giant panda team — and fans around the world — a lot of joy.
We invite you to join his first birthday celebration! On Aug. 21, tune in live at 7:30 a.m. to the Zoo’s Giant Panda Cam to see Xiao Qi Ji enjoy a sweet treat to start his special day. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian will also enjoy ice cakes in honor of their son’s first birthday. A video of the special moment will be shared online post-breakfast if you’re unable to tune in live.
This story was featured in the August 2021 issue of National Zoo News. Behind these “aww"-inspiring moments, an expert team works tirelessly to provide our panda family with everything they need to thrive, ensuring a bright future for this species. If this cub sparks joy for you, please consider making a donation to the Zoo. On behalf of the animals we care for and protect: thank you!