Little Zhen Zhen showed real initiative yesterday. While in the classroom exhibit with her mother, she climbed up several structures to a height she had not achieved before. About eight feet off the ground in a climbing structure, Zhen spent a few minutes looking about from her new perch before settling down for a nap.
Bai Yun, though nonchalant, knew her baby was climbing. When Zhen first climbed up Bai Yun was already up in the structure. As Zhen neared the top, Bai Yun decided she was ready to climb down. Momma passed by her youngster on the way, and bumped her enough to send her unceremoniously tumbling to the ground. No matter. Zhen shook it off and began climbing again. This time, she clearly wasn’t trying to get near her mother, as Bai Yun was now happily ensconced on the ground enjoying bamboo. She just wanted up!
This is a natural tendency for a cub this age. In the wild, momma panda will frequently leave a cub of this age while she forages for bamboo. Cubs can’t keep up with momma’s quicker pace, so they remain behind. To protect themselves from dangers, the youngsters will quickly learn to climb high up in trees to make themselves a hard target for would-be predators. When momma returns as much as a day later, cub and dam are reunited for nursing and grooming bouts.
Do not be concerned about the occasional spills Zhen will take as she garners increasing climbing proficiency. She is bound to tumble from the trees now and then, especially over the next few weeks. Somehow the panda is built to take this kind of punishment. I have witnessed young bears in Wolong fall pell-mell from a tall pine tree, approaching 40 feet above ground, and still get up and run off unharmed. Zhen will be okay despite these little life lessons.
Even so, the keepers have worked hard to prepare her area for her increased safety. The ground below trees and climbing structures has been cleared of any protruding sticks or obstacles she might fall upon. Climbing platforms have been installed in a few places to help her hang on with more success. Just this morning a small hammock-like structure was installed on the climbing structure in the hopes of enticing her into a cozy and easy-to-maintain resting spot. And staff eyes are frequently checking on her to ensure that she is doing fine.
Zhen has impressed everybody here with her bold attitude and easy going temperament. Keepers tell me she has taken to stalking them in the morning, ready to attack their boots with a flying leap from a door frame or low branch. This little bear is anxious to demonstrate that she has graduated from the denned-up baby of the past few months to a bear with a mind of her own. She’s getting to be a big girl, and we celebrate her climbing achievements as evidence of her health and well-being. Go get ‘em, Zhen!
Happy holidays, everyone!
Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician with the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Unit.
Note: New images are now posted in the Panda Photo Gallery.
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