Neighborhood Creek to Zoo

Posted at 2:42 pm November 2, 2010 by Ron Swaisgood

Ron and his family on a nature hike.

October was Kids Free Days at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Our Institute for Conservation Research staff shared their interactions and connections with nature at a young age and how these connections put them on their career paths. Read a previous post, Desert Memories.

It’s a little sad to see Kids Free month—and our renewed focus on getting kids and their families out in nature—come to a close. Every day of every month should be kids in nature day! That’s how I remember my childhood—the long summer days spent exploring the local creeks and woods, the afterschool afternoons spent building forts and treehouses, the weekend camping trips to the beach and the mountains. I grew up in suburban North Carolina, but there was plenty of nearby nature to sink my muddy feet into. The thing is, you don’t need a National Park to experience nature, you just need a canyon, a creek, or a vacant lot to cultivate some nature rituals.

The greatest gift my parents gave me was freedom, a freedom to roam and experience nature, hands on and unstructured. They set geographical boundaries, but really, as long as I got home before the streetlights came on, I was good. Those days are gone, I know, but I hope parents can be convinced once again that nature is not that dangerous a place—it is a rich and wonderful place, and free time in nature can do wonders to make children more healthy, happy, and creative.

Nature also provides those transformational experiences that bring many of us to a career studying—and trying to save—nature. Nature is frequently a transcendent experience for me, and I’ve had the good fortune of spending time in some pretty inspirational places, ranging from my own backyard to the pristine wilderness of the rain forests of the Amazon. A single experience does not, cannot, stand out for me, in part because I have spent a great deal of my life searching out these transcendent experiences. I am a nature transcendence junkie.

A young Ron enjoys a local creek.

I’ve always had a love affair with trees and creeks. As a child, my mother tells me that she used to go out and call me, craning her neck up to scan the trees to find where I might be. I built tree houses, simple platforms, or just crawled out on a limb. I stayed for hours, surveying the world below, imaging myself as some more arboreal animal. (The other day I asked my oldest son, Owen, five years old, what superpower he would choose if he could have any. Without missing a beat, he said “super climbing powers” so he could really master his tree climbing. I’m sure I would have made the same choice at his age.) I even broke my arm falling out of a tree when I was seven and nearly gutted myself on a sharp stick when a vine swing over a small ravine snapped and sent me free-falling into the creek below.

The other transcendent experience from childhood came at a local creek, just two short blocks from my house. I built hundreds of dams along that creek, captured frogs, tadpoles, and crayfish, then re-liberated them and never failed to come home wet, muddy, tired, and happy. I was a high-energy kid and have little doubt I would have expressed all the signs of ADHD-type personality if I had been cooped up with digital media hours a day.

A young Ron and his collection box.

Collecting was another natural endeavor that engaged me and at times neared obsession. On trips, my father finally got fed up with me filling the car with all the nature odds and ends I pulled out of the woods and insisted on carting home, so he gave me a shoebox, with a string run through it for a strap, and said, “You can bring with you anything that you can fit in there.” And invariably I filled it with magic—bird feathers (I still vividly remember finding the tail feather of a red-tailed hawk), bits of mica, bones of all sorts and sizes, all kinds of rocks, gnarled sticks, fall leaves, textured bark…anything I could fit into that box.

Checking out a panda scent mark in the Foping Nature Reserve, China.

These experiences profoundly shaped who I am as an adult. It came as no surprise to my family when I decided to pursue my Ph.D. in animal behavior at the University of California, Davis, studying the dynamics of ground squirrel-rattlesnake interactions, then moved on to “give back” to nature by coming to the San Diego Zoo, where I began my conservation work, first with giant pandas and rhinoceroses, and, these days, with about anything that walks, crawls, slithers, or flies.

I am trying to pass this gift on to my own children now, giving them every opportunity to hike, camp, and explore our nearby nature. My wife and I have founded our own family nature club, and we are helping other families get nature “back on the to-do list.” We’ve also joined the national movement to reconnect children to nature and serve on the steering committee of the San Diego Children and Nature Collaborative (for more ideas about how and where to go to experience San Diego nature, visit

Collecting rhino dung samples in iMfolozi Park, South Africa.

Where will the next generation of environmental stewards come from if this generation does not experience nature? Respect for nature comes from the heart, and to have nature in your heart you need to experience it, not just observe it on TV. For the health of our planet, we owe it to ourselves and our children to “just step outside.” It’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s what you’re looking for—quality time with your loved ones.

So, Kid’s Free Month at the Zoo and Park may be finished for the year, but we hope kids and families will keep getting outside to explore the great outdoors—at the Zoo, the Safari Park, and the canyons and parks around your home!

Ron Swaisgood is the Brown Endowed Director’s Chair of the Applied Animal Ecology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Manu National Park: Worth the Bites.

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58 Responses to “Neighborhood Creek to Zoo”

  1. Bobbie Wood says:

    Great article, Ron! And what a great childhood also! I got to spend the 28th of Oct. at the SDZ and the kids with their teachers, parents were so very thrilled to be there! One youngster after another was eagerly pointing out various animals to classmates. The tone of delight was heard at every exhibit we visited. And…some of these kids were junior high age! They were making notes and still delighted to be at the Zoo. What a treat!

  2. Grace says:

    What a lovely blog about tales of your childhood experiences with nature! I love the photo of your family as well. Thanks for sharing these tidbits with us, and I too hope that we grow to appreciate the natural world through outdoor activities. We spend enough time with gadgets we have invented or created already.

  3. Bonnie says:

    Ron, Thanks for sharing the memories of your childhood. It brought to mind memories of my own, although my childhood wasn’t as daring. But we lived in a small rural farming community in Missouri, & my brother & I explored a good part of our 120 acres, complete w/woods & ponds. Your children are fortunate to have access to your memories, knowledge, & leadership in exploring nature. Keep posting…& continue to enjoy nature.

  4. Marilyn in California says:

    Ron: Great post. I too hope that future generations will discover and nurture the natural world. Parents like the ones you had and you and your wife will help ensure that.

  5. Marilyn says:

    Experiencing nature is the greatest gift a parent can give to a child. I grew up in Chicago and didn’t see alot of nature other than trees and snakes. In school we never studied much with nature so I went into the teaching profession dealing with special children. I enjoyed what I did but have now learned, after being at the San Diego Zoo many times, I should have done something with nature’s animals, in particular the pandas. When I saw a keeper pick up Su Lin I knew I had made a carrer mistake and should have spent my time with natures animals.

  6. Danielle, NY says:

    The Madrid Zoo has posted a new blog with a video www(dot)zoomadrid(dot)com/blog/

    You can also watch the video on YouTube The cubs are growing nicely and Hua Zui Ba is such a good and tender first time mother.

  7. Linda / NorCal says:

    Ron, having been around this old panda cam for a long time, I had no idea you went to Davis. Having grown up in the country (and I mean “country”) just north of Sacramento, I appreciate your love for trees and ” creaks.” I loved your post — I wish more parents shared your love for nature.

    I haven’t seen a panda since last Wednesday. I’m going through withdrawals here in French Polynesia. I haven’t had a chance to check any place else……..I guess Lun is still with child?

  8. Annie Panda says:

    Thank you Ron for sharing! That sounds like a great childhood, I like the nature a lot too! Hopefully we can have another post from you again!

  9. Danielle, NY says:

    I got an E-mail from Chet; she got some pictures of Su Lin and Zhen Zhen taken by Mrs. Qu on October 26. Chet posted the pictures on

  10. Kathy in CT says:

    Ron- Thanks for sharing your childhood memories with us! Some of my favorite moments as a child were the camping treks with my family, touring the National Parks and wilderness spots throughout the US and Canada. I am relieved that zoos have changed the manner in which animals are displayed- from cages to more “natural” surroundings. The dynamic work of conservationists like you and your team will undoubtedly help to shape the future of our planet- and keep the “natural” energy alive.

  11. Page says:

    Congratulations to Lun Lun and the Atlanta vets and keepers!

    Thanks for the lovely post. I spent much of my childhood on a farm in Lake Placid. Now I live in the ‘burbs near Manhattan in the winter and in farm country in the summer. Both are important to me, but I am always excited to return to the country and very sad to leave.

  12. Ruth from Austria says:


    Everything seems to be well, thank God!

    Ron, thank you for a truly interesting article. I shall revert later.

  13. Mary from Brooklyn says:

    thanks for a wonderful reminiscence. my brother and his pal, our dog, explored every inch of our farm from a very early age — we didn’t have a creek, but if we got a big rain, part of one field became a pond. the two of them would spend hours there ‘fishing’.

    to za, one word —YIPPEE!

  14. Laurie in Baltimore says:

    Congrats to Lun Lun, Yang Yang, Xi Lan and Zoo Atlanta on the birth of cub #3 this morning at 5:39 am EST!!! Mom and cubbie appear to be doing well!! 😀

  15. Janae says:

    Are the pandas off exhibit? I noticed the cameras are different…

    Moderator’s note: The pandas are in the north exhibit area while we renovate the main viewing areas.

  16. Barbara in Midwest says:

    I loved reading this post! Thank you, Ron, for telling of your experiences, and for the pictures! My husband and I are nature lovers, and we instilled that in our children (all boys). We lived in a suburban area with empty lots (and a creek) and one son after exploring could always come home with a snake! As they were growing up, we took them on yearly camping trips to the Rocky Mountains, where we identified the fauna and flora there. I’m proud to say they still are nature lovers and have respect for our natural environment.

    Sadly, they’ve decided to close our church camp after many years, because the youth today do not want to participate in a place where they cannot take their electronic games and where they have to live a more rustic experience. More power to you for your efforts to reconnect children with nature!

  17. Danielle, NY says:

    What a great news!!! Lun Lun gave birth to a cub, it went quietly until you could hear the cub and then a loud sound from Lun Lun, I leave it to the people fluent in Pandanese to describe it… zooatlanta (dot) org/home/animals/mammals/giant_panda/giant_panda_cub_gallery Go with you mouse to the bottom of the video to start it.

  18. Danielle, NY says:

    Sorry, I was so excited I forgot to put the link to the full story: zooatlanta (dot) org/home/article_content/giant_panda_born

  19. Paula in Atlanta says:

    IT’S A CUB!! Lun Lun had her baby Wednesday morning at 5:39 a.m. Go to the website to read the article and see the first picture of momma and baby. It’s so exciting. Now we’ll all have a new cubbie to watch for the coming year. Congratulations Lun, Yang Yang, Mei Lan and Xi Lan.

  20. Ac in NYC says:

    The baby is borned at AZ, and I am dancing, singing and all that, too happy. I am watching Lun Lun holding her baby right now, so precious. I just want to share my excitment.

  21. Bobbie Wood says:

    Congratulations to Lun Lun, ZooAtlanta!!!

  22. Pandafan#2 says:

    She did it! Lun Lun gave birth today!!!!! Yay! I saw the video, and the cubbie is quite vocal! Sounds really healthy! 🙂 Lun Lun seemed to have more labor than Bai….

  23. Shirley Ann says:

    Just noticed that a new baby panda is born in Atlanta.

    Good for the pandas.

  24. Pandafan#2 says:

    Oh, I think it’s a girl, because it squealed in a lot higher tone than Yunior. When I listened to it with my volume all the way off, I had to yank the headphones off, because it was so shrill! 😀 I love having a new life come into the world.

    I forgot to compliment Ron for his great post. I hope everyone who reads this is inspired.

  25. Pandafan#2 says:

    I meant with the volume ON! Oops!

  26. Susan(UK) says:

    Thank you Ron. I think it’s fantastic when childhood and nature go hand in hand. The memories last for ever.

    Congratulations to Atlanta Zoo and Lun Lun on the birth of her latest little one. I wonder if the X-man has got the little sister he wanted? We’ll have to wait and see.

  27. Beverly says:

    Just read on the ZA site – Lun Lun gave birth to a live cub at 5:39 today, 11/3, and Lun-Lun is taking good care of her new cub. Visit their site for the complete story and a video of the birth. Congratulations Lun-Lun and ZA.

  28. Frances in NYC says:

    Another wonder of nature–congratulations, Lun Lun!

  29. Lucilla in Singapore says:





    ps A hout out to the X Man – Be a cool Ge Ge to the new baby!

  30. Fonsia says:

    Danielle #9, thank you so much for the link to the photos of our girls! Please ask your friend Chet to thank Mrs. Qu.

    Congrats to Zoo Atlanta and to Lun Lun! Whatta mom!

  31. Deborah (No. Calif) says:

    Sooooooo excited to hear the news about the birth of Lun Lun’s cub — it was so nice to watch the video and get a brief glimpse at the new little one! What a joy! Thanks Danielle for the link! 🙂

  32. Kathy in CT says:

    Yay!!! What a precious sight- baby and mommy Lun Lun all curled up in Atlanta- as we celebrate the latest panda arrival! Congrats to the ZA team for all their efforts to bring this about!

  33. Danielle, NY says:

    #30 Fonsia – Thanks, I sent a message to Chet, asking her to thanks Mrs. Qu on our behalf.

  34. Danielle, NY says:

    Who wrote that the hammock is too small for Yun Zi?? Even Bai Yun can fit in it, kind of….

    I also came across more pictures of big brother Xi Lan

  35. Frances in NYC says:

    Those pix of Bai in the hammock are too cute!

  36. Teresa, TN says:

    is something wrong with the link to ShopZoo? everytime I click on it, I get a white screen with “this is the new mobile page” written at the top???

    Moderator’s note: We hope not! From what page did you try the link? The correct URL is

  37. Diane Lincoln, Ca. says:

    It was so exciting to click on the Az site this morning and see that we have a new cub to adore! Xi Lan will have competition now. Kudos to Lun Lun.

    Thank you Ron for sharing your childhood with us.

    How long will it take to get the pandas back into their main exhibit area? It is really difficult to see them in this area. Too much light glare.

    Moderator’s note: The panda exhibit renovations will continue through November 18.

  38. Annie Panda says:

    Congrats Zoo Atlanta for their new baby cub!! 😀 I’m so glad that the cub is healthy and now XL is a big brother!!

  39. Chari Mercier says:

    I’ve gotta get my Yeas in, too! YEEEAAAA!!! Lun Lun has her 3rd baby panda cub one day after Election Day (hope everybody did their thing and voted yesterday)!! She’s done it again and has kept a yearly streak going for 6 years now by giving birth to her cub today! She had her cub at 5:39am this morning, 11/3, after 143 days gestation after her AI was done way back in June. The only female panda that has not had a cub yet is Le Le at Memphis Zoo. Hopefully, Le Le will be blessed with a live baby panda cub to care for in 2011. In the 6 years of baby pandas, here’s the list of the panda moms here in the USA that have had cubs since 2005:

    Mei Xiang and Bai Yun, 2005; Lun Lun, 2006; Bai Yun, 2007; Lun Lun, 2008; Bai Yun, 2009; and now, Lun Lun, 2010! That’s a nice stretch of cub births for all of us to enjoy watching on pandacams thru all of these 6 years, and I am hoping that Bai Yun and Le Le will have their cubs in 2011. Pandas Live On already have the news, article, pics, and videos of Lun Lun and her cub that was posted today.

    I got my Pandas International email newsletter today, and they have announced another late arrival from Bifengxia, China. Momma panda, You You, gave birth to twins on October 19, 2010 weighing 115.6 grams and 130.8 grams. Unfortunately, the first cub weighing 115 grams died as a result of inhaling a small piece of bamboo. The 2nd cub weiging 130 grams is doing very well so far. As of now, Bifengxia has 18 surviving cubs that include 9 males and 9 females! It’s been a great year of panda births at Bifengxia this year. I haven’t heard anything new about any new cub births from Chengdu, China. If anyone knows of any cubs that have been born there recently, let us know, ok? We are always interested about cubs!

    Well, gonna go for now. I will get on the AZ pandacam tomorrow to see this newest baby panda cub! More cub watching along with NZ’s lion cubs and kiwi chicks on animal cams! A nice year to watch baby animals grow and develop. Oh yeah, get on the NZ website’s lion page, read their latest update about Shera’s 8 week old cubs, and watch their hilarious video of all 4 cubs doing their swimming test in the lion enclosure. The lion keepers do this because the lion enclosure has a big moat that is full of water, and they want to make sure the cubs can swim with their heads out of water and capable of getting out safely. Naba’s 3 cubs, who are 5 weeks old now, will be going thru the same swimming test in about another 2-3 weeks themselves. All 7 cubs are growing, developing, and showing off their personalities already!

    Back to the cams!

    Chari Mercier 🙂

    St. Pete, FL

  40. Weegee says:

    Yeah…… 🙂

    Congratulations to Atlanta Zoo and the Panda team for another successfully accomplished mission and a very warm welcome to the new born panda cub. After watching the video of Lun Lun giving birth, I gave her two thumbs up for becoming a professional mama panda. Lun Lun made it look so easy and she knew exactly what to do. Thank you, Lun Lun…. 🙂

    Dianna, Ohio – Ah Ping is now 59.6kg(131.39lb)…..a little lesser than I expected.

  41. LJ says:

    #9 Danielle, NY – THANK YOU SO MUCH…..I have been waiting for news and pics of our girls. I miss them so much and they look WONDERFUL and BEAUTIFUL. I am very happy they are adapting to their new keeper and their new home land. Its much like your very own child moving to a new town and you only hear from them once in awhile, you will them well and pray for their success. Keep the news/pics coming 🙂

  42. Annie Panda says:

    The first panda in the U.S. was born today! Congrats to Zoo Atlanta!! I was just reading about their pandas at the zoo and but I can’t find what Xi Lan and Lun Lun mean in english. Yang Yang means “little sea” and Mei Lan means “Atlanta beauty”. Anyway, here it shows the correct ways to pronounce their names:

    Xi Lan: Shee Lahn

    Mei Lan: May Lahn

    Yang Yang: Yahng Yahng

    Lun Lun: Loon Loon

    Anyway, I am so happy to hear that the cub is healthy! (I hope it’s a girl!)

  43. Linda / NorCal says:

    Had to check tonight to see if Lun had the cubbie…..and was delighted to find out she did; and it sounds like all is well with them? I’ll be home in a week………I feel like I’ve missed so much! Thanks everyone for the posts.

  44. GRAMMMIE says:

    IT TOOK ME A WHILE TO COME UP WITH IT, BUT HERE IS THE BAD NEWS ON THIS YEAR ‘S panda baby crop……..when the cousins get together to save the worlld, things like that…..they will all be boys. Ladies dance well this spring, very femanine…..we meed girlies again.

  45. Sandra says:

    Great News for the Atlanta Zoo. Another new cub to watch and learn from!!

    Interesting article Ron, many thanks.

    Yun Zi is quite the entertainer now!! Love watching him and Mom interact.

  46. Teresa, TN says:

    Moderator, I just tried the link you posted and I still get that white page. I also tried the link on the zoo’s front page and same thing happens.

    Moderator’s note: I’m so sorry! I’ll alert our Web Team.

  47. Amanda says:

    Where is Gao Gao being kept during the renovation? I have not seen the “eating machine” in a few days.

    Moderator’s note: He is in his “old” off-exhibit area.

  48. Danielle, NY says:

    Good news from Vienna, the cub went on the scale for the first time on Tuesday and the impression the keepers had from watching him on the camera was confirmed, he is a big cub. His weight was 4.540kg (10lb), which is 1kg (2.2lb) more than Fu Long at the same age. They are following the development of the cub with as little interference as possible in the cub-mother relationship. Yang Yang is leaving her cub for a few hours to eat and they used that opportunity to check the cub’s weight. www(dot)zoovienna(dot)at/news/neuigkeiten-rund-um-das-pandajunge/

  49. Marion Schuller says:

    My brother and I grew up in New Guinea in the mid Fifties and early Sixties. The unspoiled tropical rain forest is a grand sight to behold as are the unspoiled Pacific beaches and reefs. It is with great sadness that I saw that the forest is being destroyed by strip mining along with who knows how many vertebrate and invertebrate species, and the beaches and reefs killed by raw sewage and run-off.

    I now live in an impoverished urban area in Virginia and have created my very own wildlife habitat with 5 groves of bamboo and a great many indigenous plants and vines. Both my sons have become ardent conservationists and my house, and now theirs and their families’, bear a remarkable resemblance to Gerald Durrell’s “My family and Other Animals”. A book that has set many generations on the road to conservationism and I hope will do so for many more. Although I have to admit I was a little surprised the day the king snake popped out of the cookie jar! Children SHOULD be outside, up a tree or in a creek or digging holes.

  50. Danielle, NY says:

    I came across an article about Cao Cao and her cub which was born in semi-wilderness on August 3, three month ago. The pictures are beautiful. blog(dot)sina(dot)com(dot)cn/s/blog_6a7c47100100mwbz.html

    It is interesting to be able to observe a panda taking care of her cub outside of a zoo or breeding center, and it seems that Cao Cao is keeping her cub close to the ground, since on some of the pictures the cub is hidden under branches. I would have thought that a wild panda mother would send her cub up in a tree for safety. From what I understood, the cub can crawl and mother and cub have started to play-fight. I guess it is never too early for that!!

  51. PandaLover says:

    #42. Xi lan translates to Atlanta’s Joy!

    Lun Lun’s name I’m not sure…all I know is the Chinese consider her extremely beautiful for her full, fluffy cheeks/face.

  52. PandaLover says:

    #39 Chari. Ya Ya is the female panda at Memphis Zoo. Le Le is the male panda at Memphis Zoo.

  53. Margaret says:

    Thanks, Ron. Brings back similar very fond memories of my childhood spent in similar pursuit. My nature journey led me to a degree in Horticulture because of love of plants. However, as an adult I have moved more toward a love of animals in zoos, in the wild, and helping with local animal shelters. I too am sorry that the current state of the world has made it more challenging for children to experience nature untethered. I applaud you and your wife for working with parents groups to help them bring the opportunities in today’s world to children so that they too can experience life in the great outdoors with the rest of the animal and plant kingdoms.

  54. ArLee says:

    For Teresa, TN postings #36 and #46 – I experienced the same thing months ago and finally fixed it on my own. I have been so busy checking in on Lun Lun in AZ that I am just catching up here and saw your posts.

    Are you using Microsoft IE8 and accept automatic updates? If you are, this “mobile page” problem is more than likely caused by problems with the update to the .Net Framework on your PC. Try accessing the Shop Zoo link from another computer and if you get to the store you will know the issue is your PC not the website (that is what happened to me). I don’t know how PC literate you are and don’t want to misuse the Panda Blog so I will need to know how much help you need. I don’t think the SDZ Web folks will have time to help you troubleshoot; wonderful if that can happen. If not, and like me you are trying to do some gift shoppping and we can hook up, I will certainly pass on what worked for me.

    Moderator’s note: Thank you for your helpful advice to Teresa.

  55. cindy in KC says:

    thanks Ron for the wonderful read and the ‘memories’. Creeks are awesome!

  56. Colleen R says:

    Ron’s article certainly reminds me of many the wonderful hours I spent at the San Diego Zoo as a child. We were within (long) walking distance. I learned so much. I lived with my sister who had 14 kids. There was no way my family could have afforded to take all of us. It was free to all children every day then.

  57. P Wong says:

    Creeks are great. My childhood creek was in Brooklyn, as in Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, brought home tadpoles and snails.

  58. Geri says:

    I used the correct URL to access Shop Zoo and it’s still saying “this is the new mobile page”. What can I do about this?

    Moderator’s note: It appears you are accessing an old cached page. Our ShopZoo folk will contact you directly to help fix this problem. Thanks for your patience.