A Zoo Panda Keeper on His Trip to China and Why Mei Xiang is a Great Mom

Panda keeper Juan Rodriguez opens up about Mei Xiang’s first days with her new cub, as well as a recent trip to a partner panda facility in China

One-year-old cubs play at the nursery in Bifengxia, China
One-year-old cubs play at the nursery in Bifengxia, China Photo courtesy of Juan Rodriguez

Last Friday evening, the world watched in wonder and anticipation as the giant panda Mei Xiang gave birth to a healthy panda cub at the National Zoo. As zoo keepers work to monitor the health of mother and cub, we were able to speak with panda keeper Juan Rodriguez about looking after the pandas, a recent trip to the Panda Base in Bifengxia, China and what the birth of the new cub means for a continued collaboration between the two facilities.

I understand that Mei was very protective of her cub yesterday, and that she didn’t want to surrender her for any check-ups.

She was doing what a mom should be doing; she’s being very protective of her cub. Every once in a while, she’s re-adjusting to make sure the cub was in a good spot to be able to nurse, and slightly moving away from us in the process. We had to be very careful, and finally, since so much time was going by and we didn’t want to push the envelope, we decided to leave her alone to be able to nurse her cub in a nice quiet spot.

The Panda Base at Bifengxia is located high up in the forest mountains of Ya’an. Photograph by Juan Rodriguez

If she continues to be unwilling to surrender the cub for checkups, what will you do?

Right now, we’re just going to stay back and let her do her thing, and keep an eye on the cameras and listen in. We’re also going to have the opportunity to offer her a few different food choices in the next few days, so that will give us a better idea. Basically, we’re just playing it by ear on a daily basis.

Tell me about your recent trip to China.

That was an amazing learning experience on all levels. My colleague Marty Dearie and I had the opportunity to work with our panda colleagues at Bifengxia, at the Panda Base in Ya’an, China. They are the group that actually has loaned us our current giant pandas Tian Tian and Mei Xiang. The folks out there have years and years of knowledge working with pandas both in captivity and in their wild habitat. First and foremost, we had an opportunity to see the facility first hand. It’s located high up in the mountains of Ya’an, in a very forested area, so even though they are in a captive setting they do have a lot of natural environment around them. We got a chance to work with our Chinese colleagues who have worked with giant pandas in captivity for many years. We also saw a total of three cub births, one of which was a set of twins. We also had a chance to see how the nursery staff cares for the neonatal cubs, ranging from birth to two weeks of age, and some other cubs who were a month or two months old. We also had a chance to see one cub that was almost a year old, and a set of twins a little older than a year. There were a lot of age groups, pandas at different life stages, and seeing it all at once was an invaluable learning experience.

In addition to that, we had three different places where we worked. One was a birthing station, where there were several females—some that were pregnant, some that had already given birth. location had been specifically set aside—from what we understand, for the first time ever—for six females that were completely isolated from the public. It’s kind of a prelude to a wildlife setting. They are enclosed, but they have outdoor dens, so they could give birth outdoors and potentially raise their cub outdoors. In fact, there were two of them that had already given birth and were raising their cubs outdoors an indoor enclosure. So that’s going to give them a better feeling for whether or not, when the cubs get older, if they’re going to be different behaviorally, or in terms of their health; it’s real on-the-ground work that they’re doing with the giant pandas. The last place we would see is the nursery, to see how they nursed and cared for the neonatal and one-month-plus old cubs. We actually got a chance to get hands-on, being able to feed and or stimulate the cubs to help them defecate. At that age, they can’t defecate or urinate on their own, so there are several techniques that they showed us to help the baby pandas do that, in order to care for the cubs at that stage of their lives.

Pandas playing in their outdoor habitat in China. Photograph by Juan Rodriguez

I heard you picked up some new techniques for handling the mother and her cub.

Most definitely. The husbandry techniques are slightly different in China, because they do have a different relationship with their pandas: they go into the enclosures with their pandas. So there is no protective contact. For us, our protocols don’t allow that; there must always be some kind of protection. That being said, we did get a chance to see how the Chinese animal caretaker staff behaves around the pandas while they are in such close proximity.

Have you heard from your Chinese colleagues on the birth of the new panda? What do they have to say?

We had a few—through translations—all congratulating us. A few have texted us a sort of congratulatory e-mail in Chinese. They’re certainly all excited for us.

What has been the most exciting part of this process?

Being able to see the fact that she gave birth; we’re all very happy, but we’re all also very guarded in our optimism, because of what happened last year. The analogy that I like to give is that it’s like that moment on a roller coaster, where you’re going up that roller coaster and anticipating going over the hill. It’s sort of like that—you’re girding yourself for going over the hill, so that is kind of where we’re at right now. . . I think that we’ll have a slight sigh of relief maybe a month from now, and then I don’t think anyone will be completely, totally, excited until after a year to two years, in terms of being confident that the cub is going to grow into adulthood.

And what has been the most unsettling?

I wouldn’t consider it unsettling, just more of a concern for Mei Xiang’s well being. During the cub’s first check up, I was one of the staff members that stayed behind with Mei Xiang to see how she was behaving, and also console her while the cub was away. So I think at that stage, it was just a mom who was searching for her cub—. . .“Where’s my cub? I hear it but I don’t see it.”

She was actually scrounging in her nest to see if she had misplaced it somewhere in her nesting material. It’s a good example of how good of a mother she is. She wants to care for her young and always be attentive to it, especially when it’s vocalizing. It was mostly about keeping her calm and collected, and we were able to provide her with some fluids. We had a squirt bottle filled with honey water and would squirt it on her tongue, and she was taking that a few times while the cub was away. I think that helped to distract her for a few seconds, just enough to let her settle down. Of course, since this is a new thing we have done with her at this stage, the return of the cub was a crucial moment. She was very excited to have the cub back and we wanted to make sure we could get the cub back safely into her possession. Anticipating what she was going to do at that point was something that was heavily on our minds. And she did everything perfectly. She picked it up very gently with her mouth and put it back on her chest and presumably the cub started nursing again, so within five minutes, or less, she was calm and collected in her corner nursing her cub.

A view of Mei Xiang, cradling her panda cub as seen from the Zoo’s panda cams. Photo courtesy of the National Zoo

Why does it matter who the father of the cub is?

It matters on a lot of levels. I think first and foremost, because there’s such a small population of giant pandas. It’s important for genetic diversity. Knowing who the father is will determine the level of related-ness that the cub has to the overall population, which has future effects in determining who this cub, potentially when they reach adulthood, can mate with. That’s the primary level. The secondary level is because we know that the second cub that was born was malformed, it would give us a better idea to know if the fathers were the same, or if one was from one father and one from the other. And, again, keeping in mind I’m not a reproductive physiologist, but I think understanding which type of sperm sample was used—one that was fresh versus one that was frozen—would have an effect on which one was able to survive and be healthy.

A two-month old panda cub at the Panda Base in Bifengxia, China. Photograph by Juan Rodriguez

Do we know how the cub will be named?

The tradition that our Chinese colleagues and we do too, is to wait until day 100. And at that point the cub can be named.

Apart from the cub’s birth, what other strategies for panda care did you take up with your Chinese colleagues on your visit?

I picked up a little Chinese, so maybe now I can talk to them a little. I’m sure Tian Tian and Mei Xiang remember a little of it, since they were born in China.

In all seriousness, I think that everything from the nursery and just being able to be prepared, if it came to hand rearing the cub. We now have experience with that. Getting our hands on a cub from a few days old to a few months old, knowing how much pressure and how to hold them properly, those are all important things to know. It’s also important knowing what are some of the cues that Mei Xiang might give us if something is not right with the cub. And also to know certain vocalizations from the cub, to know that the cub is doing well.

I understand you’ve been studying different types of bamboo and their effect on a panda’s welfare.

I can’t say much in too much detail, because I’m not a bamboo specialist. But in China, they have other varieties of bamboo, and though they feed them just about the same as we do, they have different varieties. They are fortunate that their bamboo growing season is about 10 months out of the year, whereas our growing season for bamboo shoots is about two, maximum three months, out of the year. So they have greater access to bamboo shoots than we do. We supplement with other foods, offering apples, pears, sweet potatoes and liquids such as honey water and apple juice.

What was the highlight of your China trip?

I think it was great to be able to meet our colleagues in China. Going over to China helps to reaffirm our commitment with our colleagues there and helps to give us a better understanding of the kind of work they do both in captivity and in the wild. They currently have one male that they have reintroduced into the wild, so ultimately those are the kinds of stories we want to be a part of and hear about. It’s not just reproducing cubs, it’s also about making sure that the species can exist in the wild. This is a very serious goal that we’re both committed to, and working together as one group, that synergy is great.

Keep an eye on the pandas on the National Zoo’s giant panda cams. Or download the Zoo’s app and carry the panda cams where ever you go.

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