The San Diego Zoo’s famous giant panda, Bai Yun, celebrated her 24th birthday Monday with a slushy ice cake and other special treats, taking her sweet time, as a birthday girl should.
The zoo’s mama bear – a mother of six and the world’s oldest actively breeding female panda in captivity – came out of her den another year older and wiser.
In her habitat, keepers had set up a birthday cake made of ice and applesauce, filled with chunks of apples, carrots, and yams. Before she devoured her cake, she took a moment to check out other surprises in her habitat, including colorful gift boxes filled with hay and pine shavings.
“She took her time, came out of her bedroom slowly and then went straight to the cinnamon and honey on her swing,” explained San Diego Zoo senior keeper Jennifer Becerra.
“Then she decided to visit a few boxes and destroy them, then she moseyed over to her cake, which took her about 15 minutes to eat,” she added.
Zoo officials said Bai Yun also spent some time pampering herself.
Keepers had sprinkled some of the panda’s favorite scents throughout her habitat, including cinnamon, wintergreen, peppermint and spearmint, which she rubbed all over her face.
Apples were also tossed into a pool in her habitat and Bai Yun had some birthday fun bobbing for them as zoo visitors and keepers looked on.
According to San Diego Zoo keepers, Bai Yun began her life as a very curious, playful cub with memorable acrobatic skills. Later, she developed into an amazing, playful and doting mother, who, according to keepers, showers every single one of her cubs with special attention.
The panda has also built special relationships with her keepers over the years.
“Bai was always in tune with her keepers,” said Kathy Hawk, Bai Yun’s primary keeper. “She knew how to manipulate us into giving her what she wanted, especially during the times when she was a nursing a cub. She felt entitled! Most importantly, I think, she has taught us a great deal about pandas.”
Becerra echoed this, and said in her six years as a San Diego Zoo keeper, Bai Yun has taught her so much about giant pandas and how to care for them.
Bai Yun arrived at the San Diego Zoo in September 1996. Over the past 16 years, she has given birth to six cubs: Hua Mei in 1999, Mei Sheng in 2003, Su Lin in 2005, Zhen Zhen in 2007, Yun Zi in 2009, and Xiao Liwu in 2012.
In April 2015 keepers attempted to artificially inseminate Bai Yun with her seventh cub after breeding sessions between her and the zoo’s male panda, Gao Gao, were unsuccessful.
She was placed on pregnancy watch for several months, but the insemination did not take and the zoo announced early last month that Bai Yun is not pregnant again – at least for now.
As many San Diegans are aware, pandas can only get pregnant for 48 to 72 hours each year. If she had gotten pregnant this year, Bai Yun would’ve been one of the oldest giant pandas to give birth, according to the zoo. It’s in her nature, since her mother is the current record-holder.
Over the years, the zoo says Bai Yun has helped researchers and keepers learn more about panda behavior, pregnancy, birth and maternal care.
The San Diego Zoo is currently home to three giant pandas: Bai Yun, her son Xiao Liwu, and her mate, Gao Gao.
The giant pandas are on loan to the zoo from the Chinese government, which can recall the pandas to their native China after they turn 3 years old.