We have been very busy getting ready for Spring here on pandas. Spring means possible Wang Wang and Funi introductions! We are all starting to get excited and there is a real buzz happening in the panda building.
We have been very busy preparing our introduction and breeding plans as well really concentrating on our panda training. Some time ago I wrote about our new training cage that was specially made for Wang Wang and Funi. The materials were donated by Mayfield Engineering Company (Leightons contractors) and an employee of theirs, Nick Atkinson, spent hours putting the materials together.
Well, the cage has been a huge success to say the least!! The pandas absolutely love it! In fact we have to wheel it away from the corridor (where we load the pandas) when it is not in use because they are so focused on getting inside it that they do not concentrate on anything else! They have quickly learnt that when they are in the training cage they get fed a lot of food, get a lot of praise and get to be even more mentally challenged! They simply love it.
The focus of this training has been mainly on our little lady in regards to her ultrasound training. This is a critical training tool that we can use, and will need to use, in order to determine if she is pregnant in the future. Giant Panda cubs are so small when they are born (between 90-130 grams only!) that the female shows few physical signs to let the keepers know that she is pregnant. What makes it even harder to determine when a birth will occur is that pandas can have a delayed implantation, so while the average gestation is between 120-140 days, there is reports of births from 71 to 324 days (after being in with a male)! That is an incredible variation, isn’t it!! The ultrasound will give the panda team around a two week window to prepare for the impending birth. So still not a lot of time to get ready but better than nothing!
So all this comes back to our ultrasound training with Funi. She is such a smart lady that it has taken us much less time then we had anticipated to get her to move forward with everything that is involved with ultra sounding a panda! Funi is now trained to be loaded into the training cage and wheeled down to a more quite and dark area of the building. We then ask her to lie down on her back and hold this position for as long as we need her too.
This behaviour is brand new for her and it took a few attempts to work out how we could get her to understand what way we wanted her to lie for us. Small bamboo sticks with a small piece of panda cake was the key! Once she got the position right it has been a matter of maintaining her food rewards to keep her happy and comfortable on her back but without over feeding her. So far we have got her to 15mins, lying flat on her back, which I think is a great effort! The funny thing is that she seems to get so comfortable that I think she would stay for much longer but we keep running out of cake! Today we tried a large syringe with some very diluted honey water and once she worked out to not bite the syringe she was very happy to lie there and lick at it.
Funi is already desensitised to the ultrasound machine, the probes being rubbed on her belly, alcohol swabs, ultrasound gel, scissors and clippers. As our training progresses the time will come to actually shave some of the hair on her belly to get a better image on the ultrasound screen. So, if you come and visit her don’t be surprised if she has a big shaven patch on her stomach area!
We have a specialist coming in next week to train Lynley, our panda vet, on the technique involved in ultra sounding a female panda and then it is really full steam ahead. I will keep you all updated as things occur. There is fun, nerve racking and exciting times ahead!
Senior Panda Keeper, Adelaide Zoo