How Did I Get Here?

Posted at 7:01 am November 4, 2005 by Suzanne Hall

Some of you have asked about the background of people working at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station. I can tell you that there is a diverse array of individuals here, with a variety of paths that all converged around our panda population. Speaking for myself, I can say: what does it take to be a behavior researcher on the Giant Panda project at the San Diego Zoo? A lot of hard work and a good deal of luck!

I grew up determined to work with animals someday. As a child, I didn’t know how many different options were available for achieving that goal. I was certain I would become a veterinarian, but not just for any creature; I wanted to play doctor to killer whales! No doubt this was due in part to living in San Diego, where the ocean was visible daily from the hilltop in my backyard, a great little spot to sit and have a daydream. Little did I know that when “someday” came, I would indeed be working with a (land-based) black-and-white creature!

I studied hard and got into a good university known for its excellent science curriculum. I took classes in physiology, ecology, behavior, physics, chemistry, molecular evolution: all the basics plus those required for my specialty. The study of ecology, combined with the atmosphere of a college campus, opened my eyes to the need for people to focus on the preservation of the precious resources of our planet.

Later, as a graduate student, I started looking to find ways to begin working in my field to gain experience. After my mammology class was called into the San Diego Zoo to help prepare an extremely rare rhino carcass for the university’s collection of biological specimens, I was sure the Zoo was my place to start. Here I could combine my love for animals with my concern for their future.

While still a student, I began to volunteer for a project involving behavioral observations of rhinos at the Wild Animal Park. After a stint working with polar bears, I started volunteering for the panda program. Finally, and fortunately for me, a position opened with the Office of Giant Panda Conservation that I was happy to be selected for.

So here I am. I didn’t wind up a veterinarian, and I don’t work with killer whales. But I don’t think I could have imagined, sitting atop that hill in my backyard, that this place was an option for me. Back then, we didn’t have the Internet, there were no blogs, no Panda Cam. I didn’t even realize that so many animals (and plants!) faced a bleak future due to human encroachment and lack of conservation resources. I feel fortunate to be able to be working on a project with an organization so dedicated to conservation principles.

To all those youngsters out there who sit atop their hillsides: dream big! There are so many ways in which you can be a part of making a difference: being a keeper, a researcher, a veterinarian, a field researcher, an educator. Study hard, take the tough classes, and put yourself out there. You never know where you may end up!

Suzanne Hall is the panda research technician for the San Diego Zoo’s Office of Giant Panda Conservation.

Read about a variety of jobs that help wildlife.

View pandas on Panda Cam.

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65 Responses to “How Did I Get Here?”

  1. Holly says:

    Thank-you, Suzanne, for letting us in on your history. I often dreamt of working with animals as a child, but life and circumstances dictated other roads for me. At 50 now, I still dream of what my life would have been like as a keeper of such wonderful creatures. I guess I have to live vicariously thru you and all the others who care for, study, and share with us all the daily lives of these gifts from heaven. Someday I hope to be able to visit all the Pandas of these United States before they have to go back ‘home’.

  2. Colette says:

    Thanks for giving us insight on some of the jobs at the San Diego Zoo, it’s really fascinating (although I have to admit I’ve never been good at science.)

    This morning I noticed that one of the panda cams said ” C24.” I looked at your panda cam guide, but didn’t see such a number there. Is it another one of Bai Yun’s cameras (indoor, off-exhibit outdoor)?

  3. Helen says:

    I, for one, am mighty happy your dream was fulfilled in the way it was. As a veterinarian, I would probably not be able to read your very informative blogs. As a behavior researcher working with the Pandas that so many of us have come to appreciate and love, you have disseminated so much interesting information on your subjects that we, who read the information, now have gained much knowledge of these amazing and beautiful creatures. I am so grateful for that.

    The fact that research is being done to save these precious animals from possible extinction is of great importance to us all now, and for all those still to come.

    Thank you Suzanne.

  4. Candace in Iowa says:

    You certainly paid your dues, Suzanne!! There may have been some luck in landing your position but I’m sure everyone agrees that we are lucky to have you there, too. Thanks once more for the great information and continue with your important work!! You can tell how many of us appreciate it!

  5. Angela says:

    After reading Suzanne’s post the other day saying she is usually at the panda cam between 8-11am on Fridays, I made it a point to check-in. What an awesome job she does. She really gives us a good view of all the pandas. I was so happy to see Gao Gao walk around. Of course it was for about 10 seconds and then he was back to the bamboo! Thanks!

  6. Ellen of Poway says:

    Suzanne, thank you so much for the outside views. Baby has been asleep so good opportunity for views of Gao Gao, Bai Yun and Mei Sheng. I’ll keep watching the exciting cam views this morning.

  7. susan says:

    Thanks Suzanne for enlightening us on your chosen career path. It sounds like hard work, commitment and diligence really pays off in the long run. I am so glad you are part of the San Diego Zoo staff and grateful that I can learn from your experiences and insights every week.

  8. KB says:

    Unlike you I didn’t become a vet (like I once dreamed ) or marry a vet but ended up married to a vet’s son. It’s wonderful to learn from someone who accomplished so much and passed it on to lay people like most of us who watch the cam everyday. If there is a next life I don’t mind to have a job like yours. Your good work is greatly appreciated.

  9. Danièle.NICE.France says:

    Thanks Suzanne, for the time you spend every week updating us with your ” teaching” . Bai Yun’s going to show us the love with a great L and you also.

  10. Elisa says:

    Suzanne, thank you so much. Today I could see my favorite Baby Boy , Mei Sheng. Great view.

    Thank you for your dedication and love for all of us (pandas and bloggers).

    Elisa from Brazil

  11. Suzanne says:

    Colette,

    C24 is in Gao Gao’s sunroom.

  12. Brett says:

    Thanks for sharing with us your story. I hope it’ll inspire many a youngster. I’m too old to go back to school again, plus my Ph.D. in math makes me better suited for number-related work, not animals, but I love all animals, esp. pandas. Whenever I get stuck trying to solve complex equations or writing Matlab code — which is like every five minutes during the day! — I visit SDZ and NZP websites to read up on your blogs and watch the panda cams. I told my wife that if we had enough money and if the housing bubble in California burst, πŸ˜€ we should move next door to the SDZ so I can just bring my laptop and notepad to the panda house to work! πŸ™‚ Of course, if we had more money, I’d be giving a bigger annual gift to the Zoo…

  13. Amanda, England says:

    Great story, Suzanne – but I bet you didn’t imagine, sitting there on your hilltop, that you’d become a bit of a celebrity, too!! Your commitment and enthusiasm are palpable, it must be wonderful to be adding to the store of human knowledge about ‘our’ precious pandas.

    I would be interested to know whether there is any collaboration and note-sharing between SDZ, DC, Memphis and Atlanta: I guess SDZ has a lot of experience to offer DC in particular with regard to bringing up baby. I see them bring Tai out of the den every day, which is not something I’ve ever witnessed SDZ do with their cubs – and yet Mei is so determined to keep him in the den for the time being…

    Thank you, again, to all the panda team for sharing your experiences with us – leaf eater biscuits all round!

  14. Rita says:

    Bai Yun appears to be working to transition the cub out of the den.

  15. Kay Ng says:

    Thank you Suzanne. I wish I dreamed like you when I was little. I just saw the funniest video on the Atlanta Zoo’s website, with the panda washing her feet in a pond! I am wondering why the stomachs of the pandas tend to be dirty. I guess that’s because they sleep on their stomachs so much. But how do pandas clean themselves and why don’t they clean their stomachs? Their heads are always clean. Thank you very much!

  16. Pandalover says:

    Thank you, Suzanne, for telling us about your dreams and how you got to be where you are. I am sure you feel fulfilled, just as you fulfill us with your blogs.

    Question: I see in the news that the Berlin Zoo claims to have the oldest Giant Panda in captivity–at 27 years old. Isn’t Shi Shi close to that? I think you probably don’t know the exact date of his birth, since he was born in the wild. We would like to know how he is. Last I read, he had cataracts, and was in the Beijing Zoo?

  17. Cathy G. (L.A.) says:

    Thank you, Suzanne, for telling us about your dream and the extensive courses needed to prepare you for this wonderful job. As a teacher, I have always encouraged my students to ” be prepared” and to follow their hearts in pursuing what they love. You certainly bring a lot to the zoo and we are very fortunate that you share, not only what you know, but also the love you have for it. The zoo made a very good choice when they hired you on the Panda Team!

  18. Carol Mc says:

    I would like to throw out an idea for those of you who always dreamed of working with animals but chose other paths in life. No matter how old you are, or what path you chose, there is a wealth of volunteer work out there that offers a chance to work with animals. I have volunteered with a wildlife rehabilitation center for almost twenty years, having an opportunity to do hands-on work with many, many fascinating native wild animals, including eagles, hawks, and owls, as well as wonderful mammal species like bobcat, foxes, and beavers. If there is such an organization in your area, check it out! It is fascinating work and a chance to contribute to the animal (and human) community.

  19. Valerie Warburton says:

    Dear Suzanne, Thank you once again for sharing so much with us all. To realise a dream of being involved with animals in whatever capacity you chose to be hands on with is amazing. To be a part of something so unique is truly wonderful. I do so admire both you and your colleagues for working so hard and being there for these wondeful creatures. Also for taking the time out to keep us all informed of what is happening day by day.

    Valerie Warburton – UK.

  20. rose giambrone says:

    thank you so much for taking care of these beautiful creatures. It makes my heart break to know that so many of our animals and plants are not going to be a part of this world because of the human race. shame shame on us.

  21. Cuquis says:

    I think the baby girl is already walking, not to the 100% but I can see her legs moving under her body and not dragging like she used to… How cute is that..

  22. Pamela G says:

    Carol (#18) is right. Years ago I contacted my state’s Department of Natural Resources about helping wild animals. They looked at my facilities and gave me orphaned animals – mostly fawns – to raise and return to the wild. They taught me how and what to feed them, and after the first sucessful year the DNR brought me all kinds of critters. It was a wonderful and rewarding period in my life…very Disneyesque. Working with wild creatures gives you far more than what you spend…time, money, sweat, sometimes tears. Life, love, and learning are the best rewards.

  23. Bernice says:

    I love how, even though the little sweetie’s not fussing or crying, Bai Yun just cuddles up with her once in a while throughout the night. πŸ™‚ She’s such a loving mommy~

  24. Zoe says:

    I am enjoying watching the baby Panda grow up, I check her progress every day! I noticed her nose is starting to go black, but it has been pinky-white before that. Will it go as black as the other Pandas? Thank you for allowing so many people to watch Pandas, it’s really amazing and wonderful.

  25. Nan - Chicago, IL says:

    After three trips in 15 years to try to see the pandas we finally got to see them on October 17th – we made three trips in that day back to the panda area to just watch and take pictures! I don’t think that we will ever forget that day – awesome creatures and a one in a million for you to work with them! When we saw Mei Sheng reach up to the keeper in the area when she spoke to him – oooh – we wished it was us!

  26. William Z Burke says:

    Is Shi Shi in a retirement home of sorts? He seems to be quite old by now. Please update us on him. I’ve noticed that Mei only feed Tai once a day around 7-8 pm for only 5-12minutes. Is that why the babies sleep so much to save energy since they don’t get fed all the time? The more you educate us the more questions we have. Thanks for your time. You are so generous to spread the knowledge around…

  27. Tara says:

    Wow this site is really interesting i can spend hours just watching the little one and it is amazing how the mother is with her she is so loving, I spent an hour last night watching them play in the middle of the night.

  28. Carol in California says:

    It’s so wonderful to watch the Baby Panda exam each week (especially since we can hear her). Thinking how lucky the team/staff are to hold and care for not only the baby but all the Pandas at the San Diego Zoo. Your article today reminds me that all of you have worked very long and hard to educate yourselves, as well as others ” to be lucky enough” to care for the Pandas. A gift well earned. No matter how bad a day I’m having, I know I can always check-in, for a smile and a ” how’s my baby girl today?’. Thank you so very much.

  29. Cuquis says:

    That baby girl is surely walking now… mom took her right outside the den and she came right back in the den on her own.. managing her four legs very nicely… congratulations little girl!

  30. Pandalover says:

    The reason that babies (pandas included) sleep so much is that it takes so much energy to GROW. I think Mei feeds Tai at least 3 times a day. Both our cubs seem to be doing very well–they both have excellent mamas. Isn’t it awesome to see how instinct takes over to tell them exactly what to do. Of course, in Bai Yun’s case, experience helps also.

  31. Kim says:

    I add my vote to the Shi Shi questions. How and where is he? Thanks and I too day dreamed about working with animals as a child. Now I dream through my 6 year old. Maybe one day she will and I can live out a dream through her (not pushing her though).

  32. Ellen of Poway says:

    Would our baby girl do better at trying to walk if she were taken out of the den and has more space to maneuver? Has she outgrown her bassinet? She just stumbles, a few steps, round and round with her nose always to the wall – just a suggestion. But if you do this please have the cam on her.

  33. Mary Ann says:

    Yes, I’m just another one who always wanted to work with animals, but for one reason or another, life didn’t send me down that path. Now that I’m 40-something, and have kids to get thru college, I guess I won’t be changing career paths anytime soon! But it’s interesting to hear from #18(Carol) and #22 (Pam)about the volunteer work. I think I’ll check into that. Thanks for the info on your background Suzanne, and I must say you truly do deserve to be working with these fabulous bears. I for one, am sure glad that you are!

  34. Margot says:

    After our adult son made a picture of the eight-week-old cub our screensaver, I fell in love with the little beauty. I had to learn all about her and, of course, found Panda Cam and became mesmerized by the cub and her mother. Fortunately, I work at home so I can check in periodically to see how they are doing and enjoy the peaceful feeling that watching them gives me. Thank you to all who take such loving care of these wonderful pandas.

  35. Bree says:

    I get a kick out of comparing the mothering styles of the two pandas. It’s almost midnight on the east coast and I checked on the NZ and your zoo. Both mothers were taking care of their kids. At the NZ, Mei maneuvered that rambunctious little guy into a corner so he could not go wandering in the middle of the night. She put her entire body between him and the door and he finally gave up and went to sleep.

    At your zoo, mom was busy tending her cub. It’s not unusual to ” tune in” and see the two of them cuddled up together, fast asleep. The little girl seems to be more of a homebody and not too venturesome as to make her mother anxious.

    Reminds me very much of my own two children. Looking so much alike but being so very different right from the start. Thanks for this window into such a wonderful world.

  36. Cheryl says:

    I just logged on for a quick check on Bai and baby – and there they are – cuddled up nose to nose – no doubt settling in for a little siesta themselves. I just can’t tell you how much I love that little peanut girl and Bai! They are so adorable and loving. Good night girls – I’ll check in with you again tomorrow. XXOO

  37. Joan says:

    Thanks so much for telling us your story! I’m printing it out so that my son can read it over and over.

  38. Michelle says:

    Suzanne,

    Could you write a blog about what the pandas are trained for and how you train them? I think alot of us would be interested in knowing.

    Thank you!!

  39. Joanne Ryan says:

    My daughter is a junior bio major at a top school here in the East – and she is a top notch student. I can’t wait to show her your comments. She wants to work directly with animals in their own habitats or in a zoo, but her academic advisors continue to tell her what a poor career choice that is. They push her to be a vet (which she doesn’t want to be!) or to do lab research-I guess to justify all those chem courses. I hope that your comment has given her encouragement to pursue her dreams no matter who stands in her way. Any recommendations on good grad schools for zookeepers? I love your website – and the San Diego Zoo, the most wonderful zoo I’ve ever seen (we saw Hua Mei!).

  40. Linda Swenson says:

    Thanks, Suzanne for your amazing story. From killer whales to pandas!

    Mei has been giving Tai quite an adventure this morning. She dragged him from the den, through the next room, then onto a boulder formation. She left him on the rocks and must have told him to stay put. A few minutes later she hauled his bowling ball body off the rocks and back through the exhibit for a grand tour.

  41. kb says:

    Yes, I also would like to know that:

    1 Do they recognize their names?

    2 How many commands do they understand?

    3 What do they smell like?

    Thanks..

  42. Elisa from Brazil says:

    to#41.When I asked the same questions to the keeper , when I visited the SDZoo in april, she told me Mei Sheng was able to show his right and left foot, open his mouth and show his belly to make easy his health exam.

    I have read that Mei Sheng has many nicknames, such as Mr M, Pooper.

    And also, she told me that when Gao Gao had arrived from China, he was able to understand English in a couple weeks.

    They are not only very cute animals but also very smart.

  43. Cuquis says:

    Hi, I really enjoyed the lateral view of the camera that you used to show days ago. Could you please put it back so we can have a closer look at our girl’s walking achievements? Thanks a lot!

  44. Susan says:

    Thanks so much for the panda cam. I work in retail management and that means long hours and tired feet almost every day. I come home from work and log on immediately to check on the baby bears–Tai Shan and our soon to be named San Diego baby girl. They always make me happy, and help me to forget the real world. I can’t wait to find out the name of the baby girl. I cast my vote a long month ago. Thanks again.

  45. Sharon says:

    To Linda (#40): the NZ website commented today on exactly what you described. They say they are sure Tai Shan has gained more than a pound this week. Just now I looked in on the den and there was such a big panda sprawled on his back sleeping that I thought at first it must be Mei Xiang. But Noooo, it is the little bruiser himself. And now to catch up on our dainty girl and all the panda cam activity I missed over the weekend.

  46. Tony Morales says:

    WOW. I finally made it to San Diego last week and got to see the boys. They are even more beautiful than I had even imagined they would be. After watching Mei from the time he was just weeks old to now, seeing him in person was like nothing i could have imagined. Needless to say i will treasure the pictures and video i got of the boys for years to come until I am able to return. Hopefully i can return to visit the boys again before Mei goes back to China.

  47. Linda Swenson says:

    to Sharon (#45): I’m glad that the NZ website described this ” you have to see it to believe it” adventure. I laughed out loud the whole time. It was hard to believe that this first time mother panda went from keeping Tai in his corner to showing him the sights. She had quite a time trying to haul his big fluffy bottom such a long way. Watching these two toddlers is such a joy. Baby Girl is getting very close to trotting around after mom. I love the way she wiggles around and swipes her paws at Bai Yun.

  48. Pamela G says:

    Checked in on the little Princess tonight and there she was, sitting up like a BIG bear, mouthing a sprig of bamboo. Adorable…especially when she lost her balance and toppled over! They grow so fast..(sigh)

  49. Eugena says:

    Aren’t pandas the smartest and cutest creature in the world! πŸ™‚

  50. patricia yuengling says:

    i’ve just been reading past blogs and want to comment: i have LOVED watching mama and baby–it’s been very healing for me emotionally to experience a mother’s love vicariously. i’d like to request that in the future you put a microphone in the birthing den. i’d like to hear them as well as see them. thanks. keep up the good work.

  51. Mary Tibiatowski says:

    Yikes! Big scare this morning when I checked in about 5 am and no baby in the den!! I know it’s time for some outings but I was still afraid something was wrong. Luckily mom and baby returned shortly and I could get on with my day. Thanks, as always, for all the great information.

  52. Judy J says:

    I am constantly amazed at the determination of a baby once it learns that it can stand and move about! Our Precious just tries and tries over and over again–and it is so exciting to see all of her little sucesses [as she grows in strength and ability] become big steps on the way to being a ” toddler” . She is so beautiful and cute and endearing! It looks like having a round den prevents her becoming stuck in corners even though some times she may look like she is going in circles. Bai Yun is such a Treasure! She has given us so much joy and hope with her three wonderful miracle babies. And all of you at the Panda Center have so much to be proud of–we are all so very proud of you and your dedication! Eagerly awaiting naming day! Luv to all, Judy J

  53. Cathy Nguyen says:

    I’ve been watching the precious little girl daily AND nightly. Totally enamoured with her and how adorable she is! I love it when Mommy Bai Yun is in the den playing with her! They are quite active at night πŸ˜€ Last night, I think Mommy took Baby out for a bit. When she brought Baby back, she had a little bit of trouble trying to keep Baby IN the den as Baby wanted to be out and about exploring! I think this little girl is fiesty AND all things cute!!! I hope they name her Bao Bei:) Su Lin is cute too but she definitely looks like a Bao Bei to me!

  54. Cuquis says:

    oh, The baby just got out of the den on her own… mommy wasn’t there! hope Bai Yun notices and brings her back in…

  55. Elisa from Brazil says:

    I have just seen Bai Yun nursing our Baby Girl in the outside area. Bai Yun is an experienced and confident Mom!

    In my opinion, it was the best view until now!

  56. rho says:

    anyone else not have any lights tonight on in the den?? Please I need my baby fix!!

  57. Rita says:

    Ahh…the sun room camera is on and it’s dark outside! Can’t you turn an inside camera on?

  58. Valerie Warburton says:

    Hiya Suzanne and the team, Totally off topic here but I have noticed last night and this morning – UK time – that the den is in darkness. Is this because Babygirl is now growing and of the age where a night light isn’t needed? Just curious.

    Take care everyone.

    Valerie Warburton – UK.

  59. Suzanne says:

    Joanne,

    Many people think what we do is a poor career choice because it is hard to find jobs in this field. It is also true that none of us are getting rich fast doing this… you might be surprised at the pay. It’s simple economics: supply and demand. Lots of people are competing for these jobs. And our Zoo is not for profit, so we aren’t making money hand-over-fist. However, like anything, there are trade-offs to be made. I don’t get paid a lot but I love my job, and the ” fun factor” is very high. I have had the opportunity to travel to places like China on behalf of the job, and you can’t beat working with the critters. So to any prospective conservationist I say: you need to know going in what trade offs are acceptable to you. I am happy with the way things have worked out for me.

  60. Donna Regan says:

    Greetings from Fla…..I’m a newcomer to the sandiegozoo.org site. I became interested in pandas after seeing Hua Mei at your zoo in 2001. I bought a tee shirt that says ” Good-bye Hua Mei” (she was to be returned to China). My question……Do USA zoos actually own any pandas or are they all on loan? Thanks, D.

  61. Suzanne says:

    Donna,

    All pandas in the US are on loan from China, including the two new cubs.

  62. Bernice says:

    Suzanne, you are just awesome! Very inspiring indeed… I hope that I could one day be like you – to work with animals, a field I’m passionate about, and to experience such joy working these lovely critters everyday. πŸ™‚

  63. mandy says:

    how many pandas are there in your wounderful zoo

    Editor’s note: The San Diego Zoo has four giant pandas: Bai Yun, Gao Gao, Mei Sheng, and Su Lin.

  64. manvir says:

    do you know how large the population of pandas is and if it is going higher or lower and what is the % of the population for this year or last year?

  65. Jennifer W says:

    Thanks for the inspiration… makes us biology majors really eager to go to class and dream big!