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Panda Updates- Monday, June 3

Have you ever wondered about giant panda intelligence? One of the greatest ways the Panda Care Team is able to see the depth of their intelligence is through positive reinforcement training. As panda care professionals, part of our jobs is to maintain careful observation of each of the pandas to monitor their health and physical condition, including any minor changes. While there is always a protective barrier between us and the bears, we are able to establish important relationships and trust, which are vital, with each individual.

The pandas are trained for many behaviors that help them participate in their own health care and body checks. The twins, Ya Lun and Xi Lun, know some of these behaviors, but are still learning most of them. Their parents, Yang Yang and Lun Lun, have an impressive behavior repertoire and each know about 30 different behaviors. These behaviors allow us to see almost every part of their bodies and allows us to maintain a wealth of information that helps us keep track of their health. Importantly, positive reinforcement training activities are all fully voluntary on the pandas’ part. This ensures that they are always as comfortable as possible, and if they don’t feel like participating in training, they do not have to.

I wanted to highlight some of the behaviors the pandas know to give you an idea of how incredible these animals are and just how much information we can keep track of:

Target – This is a very basic behavior that is useful for many reasons, but one of them is that you can use targets (such as a hand) to direct them to move to a different position. This can let us see them from a different angle or get an idea of their body movement.

Eye check – We can check each of their eyes. If they ever accidentally scratch themselves in the eyes while eating bamboo, we can administer eye drops voluntarily. This is also used daily with Lun Lun as she has some age-related eye conditions that require daily eye drops, which she receives voluntarily through this training.

Ear check — Similar to eye check, we can check in their ears for any debris, excess wax, or foreign material and we can administer ear drops if necessary.

Open mouth present – To check inside their mouths to check teeth, gums, or otherwise. This is incredibly important as bamboo can be a very tough material on their teeth, especially as they age. We are able to monitor for any wear or other changes or concerns to their dentition.

Shoulder present/voluntary injection – To administer any vaccines or injections voluntarily, the pandas present their shoulder up to the mesh. We practice this with a blunted needle that does not actually break through skin. This gives them an idea of what an injection might feel like so if the time ever actually comes, they are not spooked or surprised by the sensation and know what to expect from it.

Chest present/cardiac ultrasound – Up on their hindquarters, the pandas press their chests up to the mesh in front of them for us to be able to check out their chests or bellies. When she was having cubs, we could do things like check for mammary development on Lun Lun. One of the newest behaviors we have worked on with this behavior is cardiac ultrasound, which allows us to check on their heart health. As mammals, pandas could be prone to heart disease like any other mammal, so giving us a baseline idea of what their heart health looks like can help us monitor for any slight changes.

Paw present – We can check each of their paws and claws. We are frequently asked if we trim their nails; we do not. Pandas have nail sheaths, similar to cats, that fall off on their own as they wear their nails naturally.

“Scoot” – The pandas put their front paws on the mesh and scoot their rear ends closer for us to get a better look at their nether regions. We are able to monitor any changes in reproductive areas during periods of hormonal fluctuation like estrus or pseudopregnancy.

Stand – The pandas stand up for us to see their undersides or to exercise joint movement.

Down/over/ultrasound position – This is a multi-part behavior in which the pandas lie down sternally, roll over onto their sides, and we can conduct voluntary abdominal ultrasounds. Of course for reproductive females, this can be beneficial to check any potential pregnancy or cub development. None of our females are reproducing at this time, but it is possible that the twins may some day after they travel to China, and this behavior was beneficial while Lun Lun was having cubs. At this point, we can generally monitor abdominal health through ultrasounds.

Voluntary blood pressure – Not much is known about baseline blood pressure in giant pandas, so by doing regular readings with them, we can determine what their general baseline blood pressure is to be able to monitor potential changes.

Voluntary blood draw – We can get obtain lots of information about the pandas’ health by running blood samples. We are able to get these voluntarily and with very low stress without any invasive procedures. We have a PVC cuff they are able to put their arms into and we can draw blood safely there while feeding them.

These aren’t even all of the behaviors they know, but hopefully they give a snapshot into the level of care that we are able to provide to the pandas on a voluntary basis, as well as how intelligent these animals are to be able to participate in all of this care!

Panda Care Team

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