It’s “panda-monium” at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where a baby giant panda, Bao Bao, has recently made her debut to the ooh’s and aah’s of the admiring public.
And in this special episode of “Power Players,” we go behind the scenes at the zoo for an exclusive play date with Bao Bao, a furry 5-month-old cub. Bao Bao’s keepers, Marty Dearie and Juan Rodriguez, led the cub in her daily training session, called “targeting,” during which they reward her for completing certain desired behaviors, such as touching her nose to a ball.
“The purpose of the targeting is to start building new behaviors,” Dearie said. “So think about it, if you get her to touch her nose to a ball, well what if I want her to stand up? Well now I just move the target up a little higher, she has to stand up to it, and eventually you can take the target out and you can get her to stand up on her own without using it.”
Though Bao Bao currently has a limited grasp of the targeted skills – choosing to wander off to explore rather than obey on most occasions—Dearie and Rodriguez said her performance will improve in the coming months as she is weaned from her mother’s milk.
“By the time she starts kind of consuming more solids, then we can start building a lot more behaviors,” said Dearie, explaining that adult pandas are very responsive to food-based rewards, such as pear pieces, cooked sweet potato and apples.
Bao Bao’s learning will also hasten once she becomes more active, Dearie said. The cub currently sleeps for at least 20 hours out of the day.
“Most of the energy she's taking from mom's milk is going to make her get bigger,” he said. “She was born at 4.8 ounces. Now, she weighs over 20 pounds.”
The animal keepers also introduced us to Bao Bao’s dad, Tian Tian, to demonstrate the progress that Bao Bao is expected to make in the coming months and years over the course of her training. Tian Tian willingly comes into a cage where he places his arm on a platform to have blood drawn and lies on his side when commanded. Tian Tian is promptly rewarded with honey water and fruit pieces upon performing the action.
Tian Tian also lies down on command and will scoot left or right. It looks sweet, amazing even, but Dearie and Rodriguez say the point of the training isn't to enable the bears to perform. All of these behaviors, the same ones they are starting to nurture in Bao Bao, are critical for the bears comfort. Although the bears don't know it, they are working hard to help save their species. They are treated by doctors and examined by experts regularly. And they are comfortable around humans, moving into the right position upon command.
Despite the comfort level between the pandas and their human care takers, these bears are not pets – something Rodriguez said he has to tell himself during those “excruciatingly hard” moments when he wants to cuddle with the baby Bao Bao.
“The main thing you have to keep reminding yourself is these guys are a critically endangered species and as much as you want to cuddle with them, you have to sort of respect the fact that they are endangered and we don't want to make them into pets,” Rodriguez said. “You want to keep their wild instincts intact as much as possible.”
Once Bao Bao is fully grown and fully weaned from her mother, Mei Xiang, at the age of four, she will leave the U.S. for China to be part of a breeding program. Dr. Brandie Smith, the senior curator of giant pandas at the National Zoo, said that while Bao Bao will be missed once she’s relocated, it’s for a good cause.
“It is hard, but we know that we're sending her back to be part of the breeding program and to make more baby pandas,” Smith said. “So, I think a lot parents can relate, from the moment our kids are born we train them to go off and succeed on their own. So, that's what we're doing for Bao Bao.”
For more about the raising of baby pandas, and to get an up close look at Bao Bao for yourself, check out this episode of “Power Players.”
ABC News’ Ben Krolowitz, Betsy Klein, Gary Westphalen, Tom D’Annibale, Danny O’Shea, and Gary Rosenberg contributed to this episode.
- Tian Tian