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On September 3, Lun Lun, a giant panda at Zoo Atlanta, gave birth to her second set of twins. We wanted to know what it was like to help care for the animals, so we asked a keeper for a few details.
Jen Webb has been a Mammal Keeper in Zoo Atlanta’s Carnivore Department for over five years. A Georgia native from Fayette County, Webb says working at the major zoo in her home state is pretty awesome, and is lucky to work with pandas. “I’ve known my whole life I’d make a career working with wildlife, but I never knew in what capacity,” Webb said. “Truthfully, zookeeping wasn’t even on my radar until I took a Zoo Biology class (through Georgia State University) and completed an internship at Zoo Atlanta my senior year in college. I quickly fell in love with the field.“
Her wild job
I have a Bachelor of Science degree, as do virtually all professional zookeepers, in Biology from Clayton State University. Other keepers have majors in Zoology, Animal Behavior, Wildlife Management, Psychology, or other fields.
My responsibilities are vast, and the job isn’t always glamorous, but zookeeping combines my two loves in life: working with wildlife and teaching. As a zookeeper my main job is the day-to-day care of the animals I work with. This includes cleaning their daytime and nighttime areas; feeding; habitat maintenance; animal training (all voluntary on the animals’ part and by use of positive reinforcement); providing enrichment (ways to stimulate the animals and their natural instincts); educating guests through keeper talks; research; and assisting in veterinary procedures.
Working with giant pandas
I got very lucky! I started working as a seasonal keeper in the Bird Department and the Primate Department, but it was temporary full-time work. So I kept applying for every permanent full-time position that became available. I wanted to work with carnivores, so the position with giant pandas seemed perfect since giant pandas fall under our Carnivore Department.
The popularity of pandas
Giant pandas are very charismatic, adorable, popular animals. And not every zoo has them! Only four zoos in the U.S. house giant pandas on loan from China. Giant pandas are also notorious for being a difficult species to breed, as females are fertile only under very specific conditions and for a very, very short amount of time. This, and their appearance, makes giant panda births very popular!
Giant pandas are also a rare species in general. It’s not as likely that any of our visitors will see giant pandas in the wild in China, so the excitement around giant panda births also helps to make the connection between the individuals who are part of our giant panda program here at the Zoo and their wild counterparts, who are very reliant on conservation programs like the one of which Zoo Atlanta is part.
Birth of the pandas
Giant pandas are born very, very altricial (underdeveloped). Babies are 1,000 times smaller than their moms at birth. They are about the size of a stick of butter, weigh only a few ounces, and are blind, deaf, unable to walk, and unable to regulate their own body temperature. For these reasons, they have to be held continuously for the first month or so, or otherwise they will freeze to death. So it’s hard for Mom to take care of two babies. Because of this, while twins occur about 50 percent of the time, usually one is abandoned in the wild. In a zoological setting, the caretakers can step in and keep one of the cubs warm in an incubator until it’s the cub’s turn to spend some time with Mom bonding and nursing.
The first year
(It’s) very busy! For the first four or five months, we have keepers and a colleague from China in the building 24/7 to keep an eye on the baby (ies) and Mom. This is to ensure that Mom is getting enough food and care she needs to care for her cub(s), and to ensure that the cub(s) are growing and developing normally. Once the cub(s) are around 5 months old, their immune systems are strong enough that they can be exposed to other areas of the panda building where our other pandas spend time. This is when visitors gets to lay their eyes on the new nugget(s) for the first time. After that, the keepers are still busy providing Mom with an endless supply of bamboo and making sure the cub(s) doesn’t get into too much mischief!
Holding a cub
Their fur is quite wooly, and these animals, even when small, are very dense and solidly built. Cubs in the wild spend most of the day sleeping in a tree while Mom forages for bamboo. So they have a very strong grip! Even at 8 months old, the cubs are difficult to handle safely so we only do it when needed. After the cub(s) are a year old they’re too strong!
Like all of the animals here at Zoo Atlanta, the cubs and Lun Lun are treated as wild animals, so to preserve and encourage their important natural behaviors, our team handles the cubs as infrequently as possible, and only for very specific reasons.
Telling the twins apart
Each cub is unique. Sometimes there are visual markers you can use to tell them apart. For example, currently, Cub A has more black fur around its mouth and nose than its sibling does. But visual markers change as the pandas grow. So the best way to tell them apart is by their ever-evolving personalities. Cub A is definitely the fussier one. Also, each cub has its own designated incubator. With our first set of twins born in 2013, we shaved a small patch of fur between the shoulder blades of one cub while we were still handling them. This made it very easy to tell them apart.
A good panda mom
Lun Lun is a very attentive mother. She cares for each cub equally. She is very quick to respond whenever they vocalize, whether it’s because they’re hungry, want to snuggle closer, or need to be stimulated to go to the bathroom. While we do approach her care as that of a wild animal, Lun Lun has developed positive relationships with us, her keepers. She will shift into another den to allow us to swap cubs, and if she doesn’t want to do that she will allow us to trade her a cub for a treat and another cub. When there are twins, our job is to make sure Lun Lun and the cub she has are being attended to, and to ensure that the cub hanging out in the incubator is comfortable and not getting too hungry. We start with swaps every two hours, and gradually increase the time between swaps as the cubs grow. Once they can regulate their own temperatures, we give Lun Lun both her cubs and she is able to care for them on her own.
Pandas have a favorite scent
The keepers tell their favorites through trial and error. All scents have been approved by our veterinarians. So even if the animal ingests the scent, it won’t cause them harm. Once we had an assortment of scents, we started offering the pandas each scent. Some they reacted strongly to (rubbing it all over their bodies, called “self-anointing”), while other scents they weren’t that impressed with.
Life as twins
The twins will stay together as long as they are happy being together. This will last until they are sexually mature. Once they’re sexually mature, they will naturally want to lead solitary lives.
From China with love
All of our offspring return to China as part of our loan agreement. They return to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, which is where their parents were born, around the age of 3 and will remain together until they’re sexually mature.
What you’ll see at the zoo
Guests can currently see Yang Yang (the father of all the cubs), and the first set of twins born in 2013: Mei Lun and Mei Huan. We have a monitor in the panda viewing area where visitors can see Lun Lun with her cub. However, they will not make their debut until December 2016 or January 2017. In this coming November, the 2013 twins will make their journey to China as have all of their older siblings. So, for a small period of time, guests will only see Yang Yang.
Keep an eye out
Watch how the pandas eat! They have a very strong sense of smell and powerful jaw muscles. They only eat the pieces of bamboo that smell the “best.” They’re actually smelling for sugar/starch content. So every time they take a bite, you’ll notice they’ll hold the bamboo in front of their noses – that’s when they’re smelling to see if they want to take another bite, or if it’s time to try another piece. They’re very picky!
Being a zookeeper is a very hard job and at times quite dirty … but’s also a very rewarding job! It never ceases to amaze me with the relationships we are able to build with these animals. Everything we ask them to do is voluntary, and they always have a choice. So to see them actually do what we ask is pretty cool!
I’d also like to add that while giant pandas are definitely one of the most popular species here at the Zoo, they’re also part of a very important conservation program. Zoo Atlanta has contributed over $10 million in conservation funding for giant pandas in the wild in China. Supporting the Zoo helps us continue to make a difference with these long-term investments for the benefit of wild populations.
More info from the Zoo Atlanta panda blog
Chinese tradition maintains that giant panda cubs are named when they reach 100 days of age. All five of Lun Lun’s and Yang Yang’s previous offspring were named according to this tradition, and while there are no firm plans yet for their naming, we expect that the new cubs will be named following this custom.
When to see them
All plans will be based on the cubs’ level of development and Lun Lun’s comfort level in taking the cubs with her into new areas, but we are hopeful that Members and guests will be able to see the twins in December 2016 or January 2017.
Three-year-old giant panda twins, Mei Lun and Mei Huan, the first pair of surviving giant panda twins in the U.S., are expected to leave Atlanta for the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China in November 2016.
To visit the Zoo and other top Atlanta attractions, explore the Atlanta CityPASS.
Let’s face it; it’s time to finally take that summer vacation. Vacation hours are racking up, and you’re Googling travel destinations when you should be working. If you’re feeling the travel itch, it’s best to just give in and scratch it.
The world is your playground, but planning that perfect final summer vacation can be overwhelming. The U.S. is a big place to explore and every region has its differences — different food, different landscapes, different personalities, and different attractions.
Not sure what area of the country to explore next? Choose your own adventure and take the stress out of your search with the flowchart challenge. Tell us where you’re headed in the comments below!
A Seattle must-do during the summer and early fall involves a short boat ride across the Puget Sound with Argosy Cruises Tillicum Excursion to Blake Island. Guests are treated to a traditionally prepared dinner, Northwest Native American storytelling, a live performance, and handcrafted art—all inside a cedar longhouse surrounded by lush forest and rocky beaches. From an infamously bold population of photogenic raccoons to knowing what to call the clothing worn by Native Americans, read on for more on this unique experience from a couple of insiders.
Cameron Quinn and Christopher Frank are cruise directors for the Tillicum Excursion, each with a unique background well-suited for the job. Quinn was born and raised around the shores of the Salish Sea (the body of water that encompasses Puget Sound and two other straits, as well as their connecting channels and adjoining waters) He studied a combination of creative writing, music, theater and anthropology at Western Washington University.
“I feel a close kinship with the lands and waters of the Pacific Northwest and have worked for nearly a decade as an environmental and cultural educator in the Pacific Northwest,” he said.
Frank has been with Argosy for eight years, starting as a dancer in the program before moving over to cruise directing three years ago. He’s of Native American heritage, being a member of the Haida tribe.
“My great-great-grandfather was a carver of some renown: John Wallace, or Saaduuts. Although I do not carve myself, I have a great appreciation for the role the arts play in the indigenous communities of the area,” said Frank.
What They Do
Quinn: Argosy invites each Tillicum "Cruise Director" to shape the narrations based on our personal research and expertise, as well as the dynamic experience the waters provide; every journey offers something new to discover. Tours tend to emphasize the unique ecology of the area and how intricately intertwined it is with the cultures that have developed here for well over ten thousand years. The first nations to live along the shores predated the growth of towering cedars and the abundant runs of salmon that worked their way north on the tail of the last ice age, so the cultures that personify this region today literally grew alongside the resources that define them.
Frank: As a cruise director, I am focused on the guest experience. As the guests board, I will make my way around the boat and greet guests as I can. I am always interested to find out where they are from, and answer any questions. Once we leave the dock, I provide a narration on the 45-minute cruise to Blake Island. I try to focus on the anthropology/archeology, history and mythology of the local area, as it relates to the native communities. I hope to provide a framework with which to better appreciate the Tillicum Village experience.
The Boat Ride
Quinn: In addition to the potential wildlife sightings, a clear day will offer the opportunity to see our two mountain ranges—the Olympics and the Cascades—and up to three of Washington's five active volcanoes: Mt Baker, Glacier Peak and Mt Rainier. The route also offers an ideal photo opportunity of the Alki Point Lighthouse and picturesque panoramas of the downtown Seattle skyline.
Frank: As we depart, you get to see the hustle and bustle of Elliott Bay and the Port of Seattle. Tugboats, fireboats, Washington State ferries, and some of the largest cargo vessels in the world can be seen, along with the cruise ships and other vessels that work in and around Puget Sound. Once underway, we pass by the Alki neighborhood, which is historically significant to the founding of Seattle. I also like to point out the location of some village sites and other locations important to the Coast Salish tribes from the area. As we pass Alki point, there is an inland class lighthouse that lines up beautifully with Mount Rainier for an iconic photo opportunity to represent our beautiful area. After we cross into the shipping lanes, the beauty of Blake Island comes into view as we approach Tillicum Village.
Quinn: The Salish Sea is brimming with impressive biodiversity, and it's not too uncommon to see bald eagles, harbor porpoises, or the world's largest species of jellyfish—the lion's mane—on the cruise. We are occasionally lucky enough to cross paths with larger cetaceans on the journey; I've seen resident and transient orcas, pacific white-sided dolphins, gray whales and a mink in this stretch of Puget Sound. The island itself is a great place for bird watching, thanks in large part to the efforts of Cannie Trimble in the late nineteen-teens. Bald eagles, osprey, king fishers, pileated woodpeckers and great blue heron are just a few of the larger birds. There's also a herd of black-tailed deer, minks, and an infamously bold population of photogenic raccoons.
Frank: Blake Island is a 475-sqare-acre state park. A vast array of plant life is to be found on the island. Huckleberries, thimbleberries, and Salmon berries are always fun to find. We also have an interpretive trail with placards to identify species and how they were important to the native people in the area. It is also believed to be the birthplace of Chief Seattle, the man who gave his name to a beautiful city, loved by so many. Also, you can find the remains of the historical Trimble mansion on the island as well.
Frank: Ah, the food. Where should I begin? From the minute you step foot on the island, you are greeted with a steamed clam appetizer. Once you enter the longhouse, you get to witness the fish being pulled off the fires. One of those fish you see will be occupying your plate soon enough! The method of preparation is about 1500 years old. It is a tried and true method that is sure to be one of the best fish you have eaten, no matter where you call home. [It’s] cooked over an alder fire to perfection. On our buffet line, we have a number of other options available to you. Salads, fruits, polenta with a mushroom ragu, rice and of course our stew made with venison, bison and beef. If you have been to Tillicum Village before, you are sure to remember our bread. Made especially for the island, with just a touch of molasses to render a slight hint of sweetness. Save room for dessert! An amazing Blackberry crisp rounds out the meal, just as the show begins.
Frank: Blake Island's original name is recorded as "Tah-tsoh." It means bullhead fish. The island was never home to any permanent village sites, but was part of the seasonal rounds that were made during the warmer months to gather supplies for the winter. It is believed that in 1786, during these seasonal rounds, the boy who would grow to be Chief Seattle first drew breath upon the beaches just south of Tillicum Village. Chief Seattle was a member of 2 tribes. His mother was from The Duwamish tribe located in and around the area where modern day Seattle now sits. His father was from The Suquamish tribe. The island is found just to the south of the Suquamish reservation at Port Gamble, and in their territorial waters.
The Live Performance
Frank: The show consists of 5 songs and dances from tribes in the area. My favorites are the Ancestral dance from the David family and the Parade of masks. The ancestral dance is an important dance to me, because it beautifully signifies our relationship to our past and obligation to the future with beautiful imagery. The parade of masks is quite stunning due to the use of some of the largest masks from the region. My favorite mask is 6 feet long and weighs 40 pounds.
Do’s and Don’ts
Quinn: Don't try to make it the entire way around the island in one trip! Luckily you can mix-and-match our public tours to spend more time exploring, or even camping on, beautiful Blake Island State Park.
Frank: I think most people know the basics. Please don't call anyone chief, none of us on the island hold that title. Also, costume is not correct to describe the clothing worn. The accepted terminology is "regalia." During the show, flash photography is prohibited. We try to encourage guests not to open the doors of the longitude while the performance is occurring. The Do's are easy! Please feel free to applaud for our performers. Please feel free to ask questions, and please have a good time.
Quinn: Longhouses have traditionally been home to winter ceremonials, gathering communities together in the darkest months to share stories, songs, and dances around the warmth of family and firelight.
How to Take Something Home
Quinn: There is a fantastic variety of artists from Washington and the broader Pacific Northwest represented in the gift gallery—find something that speaks to you! Nancy Burgess is a master weaver in the Haida tradition; her awe-inspiring baskets and ceremonial hats are available for purchase, and you may have the opportunity to meet her as she demonstrates this ancient art form.
Frank: I have to admit, I am addicted to books. We have a good selection of books pertaining to the cultures in the area. You can choose anything from children's books all the way up to some pretty academic approaches to the topics. Just a few types of topics covered are cookbooks, art, canoes, the cedar tree and its uses, and mythological stories. I do have to say I also like the t-shirts and sweatshirts adorned with artwork from the tribes. These are pretty fun souvenirs for people to remember their time here with us.
The Tillicum Village Experience is run on a seasonal basis. Please check the schedule here. It is offered to CityPASS holders at a discounted rate. Adults and seniors, $60 (regularly $89); ages 4-12, $23 (regularly $32); ages 3 and under, free.