This week, we introduced a change in our management regime for Gao Gao and Mei Sheng. Thinking it might be a stimulating opportunity for them, we opened a “howdy door” between them on exhibit. This meant that for several hours a day there was a corridor available through which our two male pandas could see, smell, and even touch each other.
Since the howdy door is a solid structure with a few small holes, they can’t come into direct contact, which could open up the possibility of physical danger, as when a fight might break out. Instead, should the encounters between them become heated, each animal has the opportunity to retreat from the door without the other panda being able to follow. We were not anticipating any such hostility, however.
Mei Sheng is at a stage in his life (2 years old) in which he is inclined to be highly social. In the past, we noted the same behavior in Hua Mei, in that she became very friendly and interactive with her keepers after she was weaned from Bai Yun. Subadults of this age are often housed together in Wolong in large, outdoor pens that give them the opportunity to enjoy some solitary time if they prefer. Mei Sheng appears to be no different than these other youngsters we have observed, demonstrating a social nature that drives him to be curious and engaging with the people around him. Would he be interested in his daddy, Gao Gao?
Gao Gao, unlike Mei Sheng, is in the prime of adult male life. By nature, adults are highly solitary. This is particularly important when your food source is a plant like bamboo. If you find a good stand to feed from, it helps not to have an entourage with you; your available food source will dwindle quickly when you have to share it among many. So pandas generally travel alone, unless they have a nursing cub in tow. And since nursing cubs are generally more interested in drinking milk than eating bamboo, they don’t represent a threat to a female’s bamboo stash.
Gao Gao is a bit unusual among adult males, however. He is very social with people, which may be a result of his captive upbringing. Many of you may know that he was brought into captivity as a very young cub, before he would have been weaned naturally. Such a start in life may have helped him develop a special affinity for his human caregivers.
So what happened when we opened the howdy door? Not much. For the first day or two, neither bear even noticed that the door was open! Eventually, Mei Sheng noticed…and as expected, he showed real curiosity by sitting at the gate and looking across to the other side. He visited the gate several times, sniffing intently, waiting patiently, and even scent marking the gate as “his,” a bold maneuver with a bigger male a few yards away! But Gao Gao didn’t indulge his firstborn and continued to focus on his priority: filling his belly with bamboo. At the San Diego Zoo, Gao Gao doesn’t have to worry much about competition for his favorite food, but I guess he has his priorities!
Suzanne Hall is the panda research technician for the San Diego Zoo’s Office of Giant Panda Conservation.
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