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Zoo Reboot? “Sister of Yuan Zai” Returned to “Yuan Yuan”

The baby Giant Panda “sister of Yuan Zai” (nicknamed “Jou Jou”) reached 25 days of age on July 22nd. This was an important day for both her and her mother “Yuan Yuan.” “Sister of Yuan Zai” had been separated from her mother since June 28th after she was born. For almost a month, the keepers labored to raise her by hand and keep her mother “Yuan Yuan” in motherhood mode. Finally, they were able to duplicate the experience of her big sister “Yuan Zai” and successfully returned her to her mother, “Yuan Yuan.”

The Giant Panda team at Taipei Zoo had successfully returned “Yuan Zai” to her mother’s care seven years ago in 2013. The age, fitness, and mood changes of “Yuan Yuan” as well as the current state of development of “Yuan Zai” must all be taken into account. Extensive planning and preparations were made by the Zoo for returning “sister of Yuan Zai” to her mother once her wound has healed. Every effort was made to ensure the newborn cub’s safe return.

On the afternoon of July 20th (Mon), the keepers gave a towel used by “sister of Yuan Zai” to “Yuan Yuan” for her to smell. A towel used for wiping down “Yuan Yuan” was also placed under “sister of Yuan Zai.” The cub was then placed outside of the birthing room at a safe distance to let the mother and daughter get used to each other’s scents. On the morning of July 21st (Tue), the “nursery team” carried “sister of Yuan Zai” by hand to the birthing room and allowed “Yuan Yuan” to observe the baby at close range through the bars. The cub started making a noise and “Yuan Yuan” immediately comforted “sister of Yuan Zai” by gently licking her. On the afternoon of July 22nd (Wed), the keepers brought “sister of Yuan Zai” to meet with “Yuan Yuan” again. Seeing that both mother and daughter seemed to be in a calm mood, “Yuan Yuan” was called over to the next room while “sister of Yuan Zai” was placed on the floor in the birthing room. The passage between the two rooms was then promptly opened. “Yuan Yuan” then walked slowly into the birthing room and picked the cub up in her mouth. The cub seemed to be slightly heavier than her mother expected so she supported her with one paw. To move around, she held the cub firmly with one paw and used the other three limbs only. This show of motherly love was really heart-warming for the keepers to see.

The Giant Panda team has been monitoring all of the mother and daughter’s indicators since the moment that “sister of Yuan Zai” was separated from her mother, “Yuan Yuan,” for hand-rearing.  Physiological monitoring involved the keepers monitoring the newborn cub’s heart rate and blood oxygen level throughout the day. Changes in bodyweight were recorded before and after each nursing session. Body length, limbs, and chest circumference were also measured every 5 days to track her development. Daily milk consumption, her urine and feces were also examined to see if nutrients were being absorbed and digested properly. First-hand information on the cub’s health was collected with the help of the keepers.

To keep “Yuan Yuan” the Giant Panda in nurturing mode both physically and mentally while her cub was away, the support team drew on their past experience with caring for her last cub “Yuan Zai.” The doll “stuffed cub” was made as a stand-in for the cub. A Bluetooth speaker was placed inside to imitate the calls of “sister of Yuan Zai” on command. A raw egg was also placed inside the doll to see if “Yuan Yuan” used an appropriate amount of force when holding the cub in her mouth or arms. Feces from “sister of Yuan Zai” was also applied to the doll to get “Yuan Yuan” used to the cub’s scent. This also helped “Yuan Yuan” get into the habit of licking the cub’s bottom. Once “sister of Yuan Zai” is returned, this will allow her to stimulate the cub’s bowel movements.

“Sister of Yuan Zai” has now been successfully returnedto “Yuan Yuan,” but the next week will be critical. The support team must be patient in gradually increasing the amount of time that “Yuan Yuan” takes care of “sister of Yuan Zai” by herself. They must closely monitor “sister of Yuan Zai” to make sure that she is getting enough milk and that “Yuan Yuan” is taking proper care of “sister of Yuan Zai.” Right now, whenever “sister of Yuan Zai” is with her mother, the keepers will be close by to record their interactions. The vet and other personnel are also stationed nearby. Support from different professional fields as well as the cooperation of the keepers are all being used by the Zoo to develop a complete breeding program for Giant Pandas that other professionals can use as a future reference.