Bonus Bao Bao Update – And A Very Honest One, Apparently She’s a Stubborn One

Photo: Abby Wood/Smithsonian’s National Zoo

From the National Zoo’s Nicole MacCorkle:

“Bao Bao is participating in regular training sessions with her keepers, but as always, only on her terms. On the days when she’s focused, we make real progress—we build on old behaviors she has mastered, and learn new behaviors.

One behavior we have been continually building on is targeting. Bao Bao has been touching her nose to the target since she was about 5 months old. Now she can follow the target partway inside from the outdoor yard. And she stands on her hind legs when keepers ask. She certainly recognizes her name (when called by familiar voices) but doesn’t reliably respond yet, the way her parents do. As a matter of fact, even when Mei Xiang calls to her by bleating, Bao Bao doesn’t always respond to her! Interestingly, she does follow Mei outside most days, and rarely has to be carried onto the patio by the keepers anymore. We just need to find a way to motivate her to do the reverse in the afternoons.

Over the years we have trained our giant pandas to do amazing husbandry behaviors, and Bao Bao certainly has as much potential as anyone else in her family. Before she can do as many behaviors as Mei or Tian, we must capture and consistently be able to hold her interest in training.

There are a couple of challenges in working with Bao Bao. Those of us who worked with Tai Shan remember how interested he was in interacting with his keepers, even from a very young age. Giant panda biologist, Laurie Thompson, sums it up very well: “We were a novelty for Tai Shan. He wanted to see where we were and what we were doing.” Bao Bao has always been more standoffish where we are concerned, and is less interested in interacting with us. It highlights the fact that although Bao Bao and Tai Shan are both giant pandas, and even full siblings, they are unique individuals.

The second challenge has been finding just the right training reward for Bao Bao. We have used cooked sweet potato, corn syrup, and dilute apple juice but with only mixed results at best. She doesn’t seem very interested in leaf eater biscuits yet (one of the first training rewards we used for big brother, Tai), and because she is still under a year old, we cannot use honey. We have even tried skipping the food as a reward altogether, and opted for favored toys, such as her pink jolly ball or the red ping toy—but they haven’t worked either. Recently, we have been trying to motivate her with miniature versions of fruitsicles, and those seem to be holding her interest more than anything else we’ve tried.

For Bao Bao, at nearly 11 months old, her favorite activity still seems to be sleeping high up in one of her favorite trees, swaying in the breeze, for hours on end. She often seems to be too busy relaxing to be bothered by such things as targets or keepers calling her inside for the evening. The only thing that seems to reliably bring her down out of her tree is a rumbling tummy, and when that happens she wants to nurse.

There are some days when she comes in without assistance, either by following her mom, or just by climbing down and walking inside on her own. There have even been a few days recently when she responded to us as we called to her, and moved toward us all the way back to the patio just like the adults! Those desired behaviors are “jackpotted” with lots of praise and some extra yummy goodies (i.e. mini fruitsicles!) in the hopes that they will become second nature to her. In the meantime, on the days when she chooses to linger outside we get to spend extra time interacting with her. But those days are dwindling as she grows.”

12 Comment

  • “…often seems to be too busy relaxing to be bothered…”
    Makes me wonder if I am part Panda, deep down somewhere.

  • Bao Bao – my newest role model! Lol

  • Bao Bao is all “BYE FELICIA!” LOL

  • Please tell us why are animals in zoos “trained”? Even if they were born in captivity, they’re far from “domesticated”. “Training” of wild animals seems more like something that happens in a circus.

    • They have to train the animals so they can provide them with veterinary care without having to sedate the animals with a dart gun first. Also to deal with them on a daily basis – to move them from one area to another to clean, for example.

    • They are trained so that their caregivers can give them vaccinations, take blood samples to check their health and a dozen other general physical health check-up procedures, and move them from one area to another as needed.

      Far different from training them to dance on balls. But you must have known that already because you probably aren’t 6 years old, so I guess you’re just trying to stir up some silly outrage.

    • There was a fascinating article about this (how zoos use positive reinforcement to train animals to present limbs for blood to be drawn, tolerate ultrasounds, etc.) in the Sept. 2, 2013 edition of the New Yorker. Unfortunately it can’t be viewed online without a New Yorker subscription.

      • The link (shows only the first few paragraphs, unless you have a subscription):

      • Here’s an excerpt I found on a Tumblr. (I think the article might have been less about training per se and more about panda mating difficultiies, but the training-related portion was especially interesting.)
        “At one time, blood draws and other routine veterinary procedures could be done only under general anesthesia, but Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have both been trained to open their mouth for an oral examination, offer a shoulder for an injection, and hold their forepaws above their head, airport-security style, for a chest X-ray. Handling zoo animals this way began in the nineteen-eighties, using ‘operant conditioning’ techniques borrowed from performing-animal handlers. Since then, polar bears have been taught to participate in hearing studies; elephants have learned to extend a foot through the bars of their enclosure and keep it elevated for a podiatric examination; great apes that need to be knocked out for a complex medical procedure have been taught to allow a keeper to inject them with an anesthetic and then, if the initial dose proves insufficient, to come back for a second. A properly trained lion, responding to hand signals and spoken commands, will hold its mouth open for a dental exam and lean against its cage to receive a vaccination….
        “Mei Xiang won’t urinate on command, as the female panda in San Diego will, but she has learned a number of complex movements, including a sideways shuffle that her keepers call a ‘scooch,’ which they used to reposition her. She will also squat for a pelvic examination, and lie on her back so that her abdomen can be shaved for an ultrasound scan of her uterus, and she will keep still for the scan itself. Dearie demonstrated by holding his own arms above his head and making a swooning motion to one side. Mei Xiang did as he had done, then rolled over on her back….
        “Tian Tian is now being trained for cardiac ultrasound, because heart disease is an issue in older pandas, at least in captivity. Hanging from a hook on the wall not far from the training chute was a child’s lacrosse stick, which the keepers had been using to accustom him to having a probe pressed against his chest.
        “Some zookeepers were initially skeptical about training animals in this way, but the benefits have gone beyond reducing the need for anesthesia. Animals enjoy challenging activities, it turns out, and Murray told me that the sessions have also strengthened the pandas’ relationship with their handlers.”
        — David Owen, “Bears Do It,” The New Yorker, Sept. 2, 2013.

        • This article cracks me up. I think of this passage every time I see one of the pandas:
          “Tian Tian and Mei Xiang are simply “reproductively incompetent.” A key difficulty is that Mei Xiang places herself in what he called “pancake position”—flat on her stomach, legs outstretched—and Tian Tian isn’t assertive enough to lift her off the ground. Rather than mounting from behind or pulling her toward his lap, he steps onto her back and stands there like a man who has just opened a large box from Ikea and has no idea what to do next.”

      • Oops; that was me above (Anonymous 10:33 pm).

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