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Panda-monium: Meet the Calgary Zoo’s Newest Residents


Photo by Silvia Pikal.

What’s black and white and cute all over? The Calgary Zoo’s four new residents, of course! The giant panda breeding pair Da Mao and Er Shun have arrived at the Zoo with their two little bundles of joy, twin cubs Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue.

Panda personalities

Caretakers at the Zoo have already noticed some distinct personality traits among the panda family. Colleen Baird, the Zoo’s general curator, says Da Mao, the adult male, is confident and relaxed. When he first arrived in Calgary, he wasn’t nervous at all — in fact, his first priority was getting a bite to eat.

Double trouble
In captivity, giant pandas give birth to twins about 50 percent of the time. To help ensure the survival of both newborns, caretakers at the Toronto Zoo separated the twins and cared for one while Er Shun nursed the other. The cubs were switched frequently so both were able to bond with their mother and experience her care. When they grew larger and more robust, Er Shun took over care of both twins.

“I think he is easy to understand,” Baird says. “If he is unhappy he shows you, and when he is content, you know. He is not afraid of anything.”

Er Shun, the adult female, was a bit more wary when she first investigated her new home, but who could blame her — she has not only herself but also two little rascals to worry about.

Baird says Er Shun is more than up to the task of mothering the twin cubs: “Attentive and caring, but not over bearing — just right. She also likes to play
with the cubs, she will often instigate play before the cubs do.”

As for the cubs themselves, Baird says Jia Panpan, the male cub, likes to hang out with his mom and steal her food or lay on her, and will go to her for reassurance if he feels unsure.

Jia Yueyue, the female cub, is smart and curious. She’s cautious but picks up new concepts quickly.

Photo by Silvia Pikal.

Though the public will be able to view all four pandas, don’t expect to witness any father-cub bonding moments — Da Mao has his enclosure all to himself, which is exactly how he likes it. Adult pandas are solitary animals, and wild male pandas only come into contact with females when they are ready to breed.

Parenting is left up to the mother, and wild cubs would normally separate from their mother between two and three years of age. Baird says the cubs will turn three in October and will likely be separated from Er Shun at that time — they will stay with their mother a bit longer than normal because of the upheaval of moving from Toronto to Calgary.

“For this summer, because they are all in a new space and climate, it is best for the pandas to all stay together for a bit,” Baird says. The twins will journey to their ancestral homeland of China in 2019, while the adults remain in Calgary until 2023.

Separating Er Shun and the cubs into different enclosures will also help Er Shun’s body prepare itself for another possible pregnancy. Giant panda females are only ready to breed for two or three days out of the year, in spring. This year wasn’t a good time since Er Shun had just moved to Calgary and still had her cubs, but caretakers will monitor her to see if she’s ready to conceive again next year.

Preparing the Calgary Zoo for pandas

Kim Rishel, Calgary Zoo’s project manager, was involved in designing and building the pandas’ exhibit, called Panda Passage, from the ground up. She says the project involved a lot of special knowledge about pandas and their needs.

Leisurely meals 
Pandas are omnivores who will occasionally eat small animals and fish, but 99 percent of their diet consists of bamboo. They spend about 12 hours per day eating 11 to 18 kilograms of bamboo.

“Pandas are special,” Rishel says. “I never expected to have to learn so much about animals in order to build a project. That was definitely a change because obviously (the pandas) can’t speak for themselves.”

Rishel says special consideration had to be given to things like their sensitivity to sound, so they wouldn’t be disturbed by loud or sudden noises from building equipment, and they had to create a space that would enable caretakers to store large volumes of fresh bamboo at the proper temperature and humidity.

The project team travelled to Toronto Zoo to learn what worked and what didn’t work there, and came up with a vision of bringing the outside indoors.

“As far as the interior and exterior exhibits, I would say they’re quite different from Toronto,” Rishel says. “Very, very lush, inside especially. We want you to feel like you’re fully immersed and to feel like you’re in the environment.”

Photo by Silvia Pikal.

Good luck waking up a sleeping panda 

The building project team weren’t the only ones who had some surprising learning moments. Baird says that one thing the caretakers realized is that pandas take naptime very seriously. After they eat, it’s time to sleep — regardless of what anyone else may want.

“When a panda is sleeping it is very difficult to wake them up,” Baird says. “If we want a panda in one space, we now know that if we feed, they will then sleep for about two hours before we can move them to another space or habitat.”

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