Mama Bear And Baby Bear

Believe it or not, mother pandas go through a similar confinement period like human moms

Issue: Dec 2010

Singapore River Safari team returns to Sichuan to learn how to care for mother and baby pandas
Photo Credit: Bjorn Olesen

Even though Ang Cheng Chye has been around animals and caring for them for the past 15 years, the Curator of River Safari at Wildlife Reserves Singapore, has never quite gotten around this task of milking pandas!

“I have seen people milk cows and have done it myself. But watching someone milk pandas for their colostrums (first milk) was really an eye opener,” commented Ang.

Together with Dr Serena Oh, Veterinarian and Assistant Director at the Wildlife Reserves Singapore, Ang went on their second study trip to the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda in Ya’an, Sichuan in October 2010. They visited the facility earlier this year in April to learn more about the husbandry and the mating habits of pandas.

The second trip was meant to allow the Singapore team to study and witness how the keepers at the Ya’an base manage the female pandas during their pre- and post-parturition. The trip was also meant to allow the team to witness the delivering and raising of the cubs which includes hand-raising.

“Sadly, our stay did not coincide with any panda births,” said Ang. Still, he and Dr Oh managed to observe the keepers at work, which was just as valuable.

The process of preparing to milk a panda is very similar to a human mother getting ready to nurse her baby, as Ang explained. “The breasts of the panda have to be massaged to stimulate the milk flow. It is quite a tiring and intensive process for the staff as they have to be aware of the mood of the panda while trying to get the milk because there is the danger of getting bitten or swiped by the female panda.” Ang remarked that the mother panda may also be emotional during this post-natal period.

The process of getting milk from the panda can be tedious also because each collection, which lasts 15 to 20 minutes, yields only about 10 millilitres of colostrum.

The New Moms

Hand-raising the cubs is necessary especially if the female panda is a new mother or if either the mother or cub is medically certified unfit after birth.

“A first-time mother panda will not know how to care for her young. In the wild, first-time mother pandas will usually lose their litter. In a captive environment, we usually intervene. So the baby has to be separated from her for some time. Sometimes, a female panda may be taught things like how to cuddle her baby. She will be given a panda soft toy to cuddle. It was quite amazing to watch. The pandas are actually very trainable animals when they are motivated by food,” said Ang.

Don’t Panic Just Yet

But food may be the last thing on mother panda’s mind once she has given birth. “We saw how the mother bonded with her cub. We were told that the female will carry her cub for a month and would neither move around nor eat much during this period,” Dr Oh said.

She added that this observation was important for the team, “This meant that if a mother panda, under our care, loses her appetite during this period, it is something that one can expect.

Caring for Baby

After the cub grows thicker fur and is ready to be left alone, the mother panda will leave her baby on the ground for a short while to look for food. But it remains cautious of strangers - exhibiting its mommy, protective behaviour.

Another thing the Singapore team had learnt was how to help the cubs, when the time came, to relieve themselves.

“The cubs have to be stimulated to help them urinate or defecate. For other animals, we usually do this after bottle-feeding but in the case of the panda cubs, they are stimulated before feeding. This is unusual. We were told that this would stimulate the cubs’ appetites. This is what the nursing pandas do as well,” explained Ang.

Although Dr Oh has had experience hand-raising other animals in the Zoo, what both she and Ang learnt during this trip has certainly reinforced the importance of having a very good keeper-panda relationship through regular training.

“Keepers need to get close to the panda to check on their conditions as well as the cub’s. So if the panda is used to the keeper and trusts her keeper, it will make the keeper’s job easier and the panda will be better cared for as well,” said Ang.

Even as Ang and his team busied themselves learning and preparing to look after the two Giant Pandas coming our way, INSIDE’s special series on Panda Journey will be revealing the winning names of the two pandas in our next issue. So do watch out for them!

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