With Lisa Stevens
National Zoo Panda Curator
Wednesday, June 19, 2002; Noon EDT
Giant Pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian first greeted the public at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in January 2001. Now fully adjusted to their new home and have been visited by over 2.5 million people including former president Bill Clinton, Vice President Dick Cheney and several visitors from around the world. Each day, Zoo staff are learning more and more about Mei's and Tian's unique personalities -- characteristic patterns of eating, sleeping, playing, interacting with enrichment objects, and using their exhibit space are emerging. Staff hope that insight into the pandas' behavior at the National Zoo will prove abundantly instructive in improving the care of giant pandas in zoos around the world.
Lisa Stevens, one of the zoo curators responsible for the pandas' care and well being was online Wednesday, July 19 at Noon EDT, to discuss the pandas, their progress over the last year and the zoo in general.
The transcript follows.
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over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
How do the pandas adapt to the weather here? Are there similar conditions in their native habitat?
Lisa Stevens: The weather in Central China is very similar to Washington. We can grow some of the same plant species -- including bamboo. Our summers are longer and hotter. Winters are a little shorter and not as cold. So we have a specially designed enclosures to help them be comfortable -- particularly in the hot summers.
To add to that, we've created specially designed grottos that are air-conditioned and have chilled water running through them. Lots of shade, misting and fogging systems.
Their favorite things are the pools of water.
Woodley Park, Washington, D.C.:
At what point did Tian become
accustomed to the duck that lives in his
Lisa Stevens: That's a good one. He didn't pay much attention to the duck. The only time he notices is if the duck encroaches on his space.
What new insight has been gained from the night project that was done recently? I think the project was to see the nocturnal activity of the pandas.
Lisa Stevens: Over the course of a year, we conducted 24 hour watches on the pandas. Usually lasting up to a week. To better understand the activity levels over a 24 hour period. What we learned so far is that both pandas get up and eat in the middle of the night and I think Tian gets up first and then she follows over the course of the next hour. But what we're trying to establish over the course of a year is what they're doing at night and how it changes seasonally.
We're getting ready to do another one in July, but haven't done one in several months.
I'm curious if the zoo is part of any broader, national or international conservation programs related to pandas. Other than the educational value, how does having the pandas at the National Zoo benefit their conservation in the wild?
Lisa Stevens: First of all, the pandas are here on a 10 year loan from the China Wildlife Conservation and we're providing $1 Million a year to that organization that must be implemented on field conservation projects. SO the loan of pandas to the U.S. and the relationship we have is similar to Zoo Atlanta. That relationship funds critical conservation projects.
I think it is very important for people to understand that in order to save endangered species. We need huge amounts of funds. Pandas, because of their visibility, raise money for conservation. We also are continuing a 30 year commitment to this species, built on behavior in research, reproduction, nutrition, management -- so we have the opportunity to further our knowledge.
Recently, we documented hormone and adolescence in pandas. About which there's not documentation already.
The next benefit is that they become a focal point for collaborations between China and the U.S. We conduct workshops in wildlife management in a national park in China. As a result, people who work in conservation of other species can participate. So, there's a broader effect.
We feel that education is important, that pandas have the ability to raise empathy toward animals and we have the opportunity to create a North American population.
Can volunteers help work with pandas?
Lisa Stevens: Yes. Yes. Yes. We rely tremendously on volunteer support. There are two programs: Giant Panda interpreter program and the giant panda research volunteer program. Both programs are administered by FONZ and you can go to the Web site for more information.
People who have over one acre of bamboo growing on their property can get on a list as a potential site for us to harvest bamboo -- but they must have over an acre. For people with smaller amounts, we don't operate a bamboo cutting service (that's an urban legend). However, we will take fresh cut bamboo if you cut it and bring it in fresh cut.
There are plenty of opportunities.
When Mei and Tian are wrestling, she sounds like she's annoyed! Is she really annoyed, or is that how pandas usually sound?
Lisa Stevens: I have no way of knowing what her emotional state is when they're interacting. Mei is very vocal and they are when they play. They also can play quite rough.
Do you expect the pandas to mate? And are they getting along better after their run-in earlier this year?
Lisa Stevens: The good news is that they experienced their first breeding season this year. She is one year younger than Tian. He's turning five this year. We saw sexual behavior from them, unfortunately, entering the breeding season meant their interactions became more aggressive, so we separated them. So they've been separated -- other than during Mei's ovulatory period -- because of Tian's rough behavior.
Now that we are out of breeding season the behavior across a mesh barrier is giving us to believe we'll be able to house them together in the near future again. We'll be trying to do introductions again soon.
Exactly how many pandas are there in the world?
Lisa Stevens: We actually do not know the exact number because there has been very little field work done. We need to do an accurate census and that's under way.
We believe there are 1,000 pandas left in the wild -- we've been using that figure for 20 years. 140 are in zoos in breeding centers... about 18 of those outside of China.
What can you tell us about the pandas' personalities? Is there anything about their characters that has surprised you?
Lisa Stevens: I probably most surprised at how easily they dealt with the transition from China to the U.S.
THeir very much individuals. Tian is very "needy." He likes attention. He enjoys his enrichment activities -- but after 15 minutes he's ready for the next one. He's not easily upset or spooked. He's just a very stable character.
Mei is a little more shy and tentative. On the other hand, as a result, she spends a lot of time exploring and seems much more independent of us.
Tian is very food motivated and Mei is less so. But Tian doesn't like carrot.
I thought keepers never got close to the pandas, but I've seen people scratching Tian's back, ears, head, etc. through the fence while he sat outside on the sidewalk. He seemed to love it, like a giant puppy.
Lisa Stevens: Yes, Tian definitely likes attention. Both have positive interactions with keepers -- through mesh. We've started a positive reinforcement training where we examine body parts and drawn blood without anesthesia and take chest radiographs.
So a food treat and a bit of praise can go a long way. Our whole goal in managing zoo animals is to develop a positive relationship based on trust.
Can Tian really do tricks (i.e. standing and turning on his hind legs, somersaults) on command? I've seen him perform these actions when he was in the yard and a keeper was behind the fence, and it looked like he got a reward for it.
Lisa Stevens: Those are natural play behaviors and we teach our animals behaviors that help us manage them. But we view trick training as demeaning. We really want to focus on things that help us care for them.
I understand that the pandas will be getting a much larger exhibit and the old Australia exhibit will be torn down. What other exhibits at the zoo are scheduled for renovation? Will an exhibit for Australian animals be built elsewhere in the zoo?
Also, I recently heard that the Kodiak Bear Kiska passed on. Are there any plans to bring another Kodiak to the zoo?
Lisa Stevens: The zoo is launching a very ambitious plan to create an Asia trail exhibit. So we'll expand the panda's home but also providing improvements for other asian mammals -- including the sloth bear and asian elephants. Both of these are in old exhibits and need to benefit from improved environments.
The Australia exhibit -- the structure is not sound so it will be demolished. Some of the animals will be accommodated in other areas of the zoo -- the kangaroos, emus -- others will be relocated to other zoos.
There are no plans to acquire any Kodiak bears for the zoo. And our longterm plan would be to renovate that bear area so we wouldn't want to acquire new animals yet.
Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.:
I saw a documentary on the panda center in China. They showed a female panda a video of another female breast feeding to teach her how to nurse. Have you thought about showing Mei X-rated panda videos? It might help her! I watched them on the panda cam, and she started out fine, but then rolled over onto her back when Tian approached her.
Best of luck, a FONZ
Lisa Stevens: First of all, thank you for your good wishes. We're very optimistic for next year.
As far as showing pandas videos, there's no scientific evidence that pandas learn from video. How I wish it was so easy! While that made a good TV program, that's not sound science. Sorry.
What is the best time of day to visit the zoo in order to see the pandas active?
Lisa Stevens: The best time is early -- the pandas usually go out at 8 a.m. But they're active on and off throughout the day and its hard to predict. They're usually asleep after about 9:30 a.m. to Noon and then in the afternoon they eat and sleep. The afternoon also gets hot so they retreat to the shade.
Lisa Stevens: Right now we're on summer hours the pandas are brought inside and fed at 5 p.m. -- so you can see that too. That's only during the summer months.
Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.:
What is the mortality rate among panda cubs living in captivity? I would assume low. What has research and observing pandas yielded in terms of prolonging cubs' lives?
Lisa Stevens: Cub mortality has been historically quite high, but is decreasing. It had been as high as 60 percent, but has now dropped to around 20 percent.
What we have learned over the last decade is how to hand-raise pandas successfully and how to better manage panda cubs. In China, where they have all the experience, they've developed a new technique which works well.
Pandas often have twins, but often can't handle raising two. So they alternate their time in the nursery so they both benefit from contact with their mother and nutrition.
One of the things we think is very important is to make sure the cubs stay with their mothers for the first year of their lives. We think it important that we get the human component out and spend a lot of time with their mothers as they mature.
Lisa Stevens: WE're learning a lot about panda medicine. The more animals that are held with modern vet care, we're learning tremendously about panda medicine.
Now that we can draw blood enables us to learn more about basic blood chemistry. So we have an opportunity to learn more about what's going on in the wild.
I remember learning in school that pandas were bears. Then in a later grade we learned that no, they're related to raccoons. Now it seems like they're considered bears again. Could you clear this up for us?
Lisa Stevens: Yes, taxonomists traditionally looked at animals and classified them based on skeleton and anatomy. Pandas have traits of bears and raccoons. WHen DNA technology became available, we did a project with the National Cancer Institute and they found giant pandas are more closely related to bears and red pandas to raccoons. But they're different enough that their in their own sub-family.
What is the main attraction to the giant pandas? I like watching them, too, but I equally enjoy the rest of the zoo. I've heard people say that they are going to see the pandas, not see the zoo. I'm not complaining -- any animal that brings attention to our wonderful zoo is a good thing. Come see the pandas, then go see everything else.
Lisa Stevens: I agree. The pandas are a hook and we hope you enjoy all animals.
Pandas have characteristics that we find "cute" -- similar to our toddlers -- round bodies, short limbs, black eyespots that exaggerate eyes and enormous round heads and ears that stick out. Our genetic hardwiring tells us these things make the pandas cute.
If you took away the eyespots and made their heads smaller, we wouldn't find them nearly as appealing.
Will you be receiving more pandas? Will Mei Xiang and Tian Tian ever mate?
Lisa Stevens: I hope our next acquisition will be through a birth, however, I would never turn down any pandas -- but they don't come without a cost.
How many words do the pandas respond to? I've heard the keepers call them by name, but do they know any other words?
Lisa Stevens: Yes, they do. I haven't sat down and listed how many -- maybe half a dozen words.
When will mating season next come around for the pandas? Any reason to expect a more amicable result?
Lisa Stevens: Typically it is March to May and females only ovulate during a two day period. So that's our one opportunity a year to breed.
Why do panda babies born in captivity have such a low survival rate? What is their survival rate in the wild?
Lisa Stevens: Survival rate in the wild is also low. One reason their endangered is because they have this difficult biology and the cubs are very fragile. And they give birth to twins -- of which one usually doesn't survive.
Because cubs weigh only 4 ounces when born, they're susceptible to infection. MOthers in the wild will leave them to hunt. Ultimately, if there's any pressure on pandas, the slow reproductive rate doesn't allow them to recover.
Dale City, Va.:
Lisa, why are the keepers notes on the National Zoo Web page not kept up to date?
The notes that are posted are a year old.
Lisa Stevens: First of all, I'm shocked that they're a year old. Secondly, the reality is the pandas don't do a lot different from day to day, so its hard to come up with new notes. But I thought they'd at least be updated. I'll tell our Webmaster.
Will you try artificial insemination if panda breeding behavior doesn't look promising during the short one- to three-day "window of opportunity"?
Lisa Stevens: We're committed here at the zoo to natural breeding. So we'll do everything we can to create success that way. Certainly we will always consider artificial technology.
I've always suspected the pandas were men in bear suits, not actual bears. Why do they look so different from other bears? What benefits are there for being the way they are?
Lisa Stevens: They're different because they've evolved to eating exclusively bamboo. So the huge round head is for huge jaw muscles. The pandas need this for chewing such a tough food. They also have broad molars for this.
So they've adapted this upright posture for eating. They also have modified wristbone that acts as a thumb -- and I hate saying "thumb" because it looks like the pad on a dog's foot. Then they have five toes with claws on them. They use it like a wedge to hold the bamboo.
It's the eating bamboo. The coloration, though, we don't have a strong answer on. We believe in their forest home the black and white coloration helps them blend into shadow and light patterns. Certainly other bears live in forests who aren't colored like that. Perhaps there's some social behavior we don't know about. But we don't have any evidence of that yet.
Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.:
When Tian first arrived at the zoo, he used to chase the squirrels and birds in the enclosure. (And then he'd sit and pant because he was out of breath.) Has he mellowed out? How long did it take him to get used to other animals?
Lisa Stevens: I think they're waiting for their opportunity to catch a squirrel or bird. Both of them do chase them.
There are pandas in China that have killed and eaten goats around villages and a few rare reports of them eating small animals, but this is very rare behavior.
How closely do you work with other zoos that have pandas (like ZooAtlanta) in sharing information on your pandas?
Lisa Stevens: We work very closely. We have a species survival plan for the panda that lets us share common goals, research information and collaborate on studies.
At the National Zoo now, we're conducting a cognition study and that project is being collected at Zoo Atlanta, San Diego and China. It's very important for us to work together. The key to our success is collaboration.
Why has the Think Tank's Orangutan Language Project been terminated? I heard that there is a risk assessment going on throughout the zoo, and the question of whether Dr. Schumaker, the keeper/researcher, can continue entering the enclosure with the female orangutan was folded into that assessment process, but when will it be completed? And will will the research sessions start again? His work with the female orangutan and their interaction in the enclosure are the reason I visit the zoo.
Lisa Stevens: There's been a recent policy change and we're adjusting the methodology of that project so it can can continue. It's difficult to say when they'll resume, but it may be possible to see Shumaker working with them using flashcards from outside the enclosure. There is a safety assessment which recently commenced and I that's in progress. I don't know when the assessment will be completed.
Long Beach, Calif.:
To what extent do exhibits of rare animals confuse the public as to the cruel realities of extinction and habitat destruction? I support cuteness, but feel as though it helps paint an inaccurate big picture. Your thoughts?
Lisa Stevens: We have a broad range of animals here at the zoo. I wish people thought they were all cute. Our challenge is to depict the full range of the earth's biodiversity as well as engage people in a way that will have them leave the zoo today wanting to do something to make a difference. Conservation will take all our effort and we can each take steps to make that difference. Living here in this area, one big issue will be water conservation. So our challenge is to engage people and take information they learn here and apply it to their local community and meet the challenge of making a difference.
I think people have to remember that zoo populations are built upon census taking programs where these animals are several generations zoo born. So we're not removing animals from the wild. What you see with the pandas is an extraordinary example of an animal to generate money for research and help for the species. Pakin and bamboo rats and golden monkey and lots of animals you've never heard of are benefiting.
How did you come to work at the zoo? What is your educational background and how can others become zoo curators?
Lisa Stevens: I started at the zoo 24 years ago right out of college. I have a bachelor of science in zoology. I wanted to take time off before vet school. But I realized the zoo combined everything I was interested in. I work with healthy animals and work on preventative health and to work with visitors to teach about conservation and to have a good impact on management. I was promoted to a curatorial position after that.
If one is interested in a zoo career, pursue a biology education and get hands on experience -- with domestic and wild animals. Ultimately, if someone wants to work at a major zoo, then you need to have a strong foundation of zoo experience.
There are not volunteer opportunities around the animals for people under 18, but we have a wealth of programs -- camps and classes offered year round. So I can't speak in much detail about it, but there have been some teenage programs lately involving travel and getting them in for specific volunteer projects.
Clinton Township, Mich.:
Can an individual gain a tour with you to view the pandas? Here in Michigan at the Detroit Zoo, we have a program that for a donation to the zoo, a member of the staff will take to to areas, have information on the animal that you are viewing and be able to answer questions. I think they are interns.
Lisa Stevens: There are fundraising activities at the zoo -- specifically on our zoofari evening at the zoo -- you can bid on a opportunity to get a tour with a curator. Sometimes, donors to the zoo get behind-the-scenes tours, but we're very limited manpower-wise, but we do these on a more informal basis.
How does the poverty in China affect the population of pandas there? Are they being driven out of their territories by ever increasing numbers of poor people looking to homestead uncultivated land like in the rainforest?
Lisa Stevens: Yes, that's the key to endangered species management all over the world. We need to come up with ways to better take care of people and make sure they meet their needs. Humans encroaching is the reason they're endangered. This is going on as we speak. So our challenge is not only to learn about pandas, but make sure the human component is always there and that we're meeting the needs of the farmers who are depending on the land for survival.
We talked about our zoo partners, but we also want to work with NGOs who deal with the human aspects. One way we can have an impact on people is through education and there is an education component to our conservation work in China.
I just checked your Web site and found a buried mention that Kiska died this year -- I didn't hear about this, when and what happened? She was always my favorite.
Lisa Stevens: Kiska was an old bear and she developed cancer and had to be euthanized. She wasn't very comfortable and it was the most humane thing to do for her.
I once visited the zoo in Madrid and was appalled at the conditions in which the animals were living. Is there any overarching watchdog organization that monitors zoos and regulates them?
Lisa Stevens: In the U.S. we have the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, but there's not an international organization. However, as we collaborate with our international colleagues we have the opportunity to influence animal management and care and certainly through our collaboration with China we will impact zoo management there and it really is about the world becoming smaller and sharing our knowledge.
Lisa Stevens: Thank you for your interest in our pandas and programs. I hope all of you will visit and support the zoo. I really appreciated the opportunity that washingtonpost.com gave me to answer your questions directly.
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