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Panda Cub The

Club

Yun Zi never met an exhibit he didn’t like rearranging.


Yun Zi made a name for himself as an active, mischievous cub.

By Peggy Scott Associate Editor

T

Photos by Ken Bohn SDZG Photographer

he cubs born at the San Diego Zoo have shared many characteristics. All six have been born squeaky, pinkish, stick-of-butter-sized creatures that more resembled naked guinea pigs than giant pandas. Each developed the signature black-and-white coloring at around two weeks of age, and every one grew from wiggly little baby to sleepy cub to inquisitive youngster. But not unlike human siblings, these brothers and sisters also turned out to have their own distinct personality, from mellow to mischievous. As our panda keepers, researchers, and narrators can attest, those different temperaments have resulted in a wide array of experiences—all of them special in their own way, just like the pandas themselves.

The Darling Daredevil Born on August 21, 1999, Hua Mei was the start of our panda-breeding success story. Now a mother herself several times over, in China,


Hua Mei

Mei Sheng

Su Lin

Zhen Zhen

Yun Zi

2012 cub


Hua Mei is remembered fondly as a wonderful little bear. “Hua Mei will always be special for what she meant to panda conservation, Bai Yun, and to us,” said Suzanne Hall, panda senior research technician at the San Diego Zoo. “Our research efforts with her were so intense. She set the bar for all the others.” “Hua Mei taught us so much,” said Megan Owen, conservation program manager. “And she was the most demanding cub. Hua Mei really kept Bai Yun on her toes.” Not to mention those of her human caretakers. “Hua Mei would not stay out of the trees!” declared Kay Ferguson, The first cub born at the panda narrator. “She was like a monkey. San Diego Zoo, Hua Mei. But sometimes she would tumble out of the trees. I stopped counting her falls at 50.” The first of those falls, at around six “Hua Mei will always be or seven months of age, caught everyone off guard—except Bai Yun, Kay said. special for what she meant “Hua Mei landed on the ground and lay to panda conservation, Bai there for a minute, and Bai Yun walked Yun, and to us,” said Suzanne up, rolled her over, and gave her a nudge Hall, panda researcher at the like ‘Come on, get up, girl!’ And she did,” Kay recalled. When she wasn’t practicing San Diego Zoo. her climbing skills, Hua Mei worked on her guest relations. “Every morning, she would come out, sit on the log, and watch people,” Kay said of the cub she nicknamed Sweet Pea. “She was very much a people person—or bear.”

“Buddy Bear” Mei Sheng, the next cub, was born on August 19, 2003, and was the first sired by Gao Gao (Hua Mei’s father was Shi Shi). “Buddy Bear, as I called him, was hooked to Bai Yun’s left hip,” Kay remembered. “He was a real mama’s boy.” And mama’s boy was going to be the first cub to experience what Kay thinks may be a little gender-specific maternal care from mother bear. “When Mei Sheng was about five or six months old, Bai Yun picked him up by the scruff of the neck and dunked him


Su Lin was a master at feeder puzzles.

up and down in the pond like a dirty dishrag,” Kay reported with a laugh. “And he was outraged about getting a bath. And you know what? She did the same thing later with Yun Zi. But never the girls. I don’t know if the boys smell different or worse or what, but I saw them get baths!” And apparently, Mei Sheng never forgot it. According to Kay, even when he got to be as old as 19 months, whenever he would be around the pond, Mei Sheng always seemed to keep one ear open, just in case Mom was coming with bath time on her mind!

A Wild and Crazy Bear Suzanne remembers Su Lin, born on August 2, 2005, as being a “mellow” cub. Yet, once she began spending time in the exhibit, the little panda’s antics earned her the nickname “crazy bear” from Kay. “Oh, she could be mischievous,” Kay said. “But she had a fantastic personality and was so good at mastering the feeder puzzles!” Others observing the bear’s handiwork around the exhibit dubbed her the “decorating diva.”


Hua Mei conquered trees with ease.

The Quiet One Also remembered as mellow by Suzanne, Zhen Zhen, born on August 3, 2007, maintained her demure ways. “She was the gentlest and quietest of all the cubs,” Kay said of the cub she dubbed “Zhennie Poo.” “She was the tender heart.”

The Smart Surfer Yun Zi, born on August 5, 2009, seems to have many interests—and admirers. “Yun Zi was my first cub—the first one I got to hold,” said Jennifer Becerra, senior mammal keeper. “He responds well to me. He will come out of the tree for me. I trained him to shift inside. I trained most of his behaviors. He’s our only panda who knows how to roll over on command.” “Yun Zi, I think, is the smartest,” Kay said. “He is always thinking.” Sometimes, however, those thoughts can mean more work for his keepers. “Yun Zi is kind of a rabble-rouser,” said Alyssa Medeiros, panda narrator. “He has his own idea of ‘feng shui’—like blocking the drains


Mei Sheng was quite the mama’s boy.

with rocks and logs. And he loves anything he can tear apart. When he was a baby, he was very excited to grab a piece of bamboo from Bai Yun and run off with it. It was just an outer piece of the stalk, but he really thought he had gotten away with something.” The active boy enjoys “sports,” too. “He’s our surfer panda,” Jennifer revealed. Keepers place a floating disk in his pool that usually holds treats. But Yun Zi takes a running start and leaps on the disk, causing it to “surf” across the surface. “We received a donation from a panda fan in Hawaii to make his pool bigger so he has more room to ‘surf.’ And he has a swing that he loves, and he has learned how to rock back and forth on it,” said Jennifer.


“The best part of the job is watching them grow up and learn to be a panda.” The newest cub, born on July 29, 2012, is a bit young to be showing much personality, but he is already exhibiting some traits similar to at least one sibling—Mei Sheng. But will he get pool baths from Bai Yun? Only time will tell. Watching the cubs develop into young adult bears is rewarding for their many fans, and their keepers. “The best part of the job is watching them grow up and learn to be a panda,” Alyssa said. The newest cub’s tummy girth often eclipsed his Of course, the day comes chest measurement. when each cub reaches his or her third birthday and must, per the breeding loan agreement, go to China. Saying goodbye can be hard for the bears’ caretakers, but they try to keep a positive perspective. “About the bears that go back, I think of what they are contributing to their species,” Kay said. “Our bears are strong and helping save all pandas.” n


Look for our special November digital issue for the iPad devoted exclusively to giant pandas! Featuring: • Panda cub blog updates • Live Panda Cam • Exclusive panda photos, videos, and articles

Available for iPad download now.


ZOONOOZ November 2012