Local resident on zoo team works to make sure pandas survive, thrive

By Karen Billing

One of the more popular places at the San Diego Zoo right now is the monitor room in the panda building where several angles of Panda Cam are playing live on various TVs. Visitors can see mamma bear Bai Yun cutely cradle her cub son and snuggly baby bear vocalizations can be heard over the audio track.

People working anywhere near the room find reasons to pass by.

The zoo’s latest addition was born on July 29 under the watchful eye of the panda team, the most successful breeding program in the country. One member of the team is Suzanne Hall, a local resident who is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research (ICR).

While Hall’s job sounds pretty high on the dream job scale, she said it has its challenges just like any job: there’s always questions about funding and she spends a fair amount of time in front of a computer screen like most people.

“One of the great things about my job, though, is it is the best place in the world to have a lunch break,” Hall said. “I just go sit and watch the bears because it can recharge your batteries.”

Before the panda cub got all the attention, there were jaguar cubs to swoon over.

“There’s always something going on at the zoo and it’s nice to be a part of it,” Hall said.

Hall’s primary role is that of a researcher, specializing in bears. She focuses on maternal care and infant development but does other studies as well, such as one she’s working on about panda hearing. For a bear specialist, San Diego is not a bad place to be: Of the eight living bear species in the world, the San Diego Zoo is home to six of them.

“Very few zoos can say that they have that many species of bears under one roof,” Hall said. “We’re exceptional in that way.”

Since a very young age, Hall always knew she wanted to do something working with animals. She initially wanted to be a veterinarian but once she started taking ecology courses at UC San Diego, she grew more interested in conservation issues.

Through a combination of “luck and preparation” she landed at the San Diego Zoo, doing volunteer work on a polar bear project. She eventually was selected to work on a rhino project at the then-Wild Animal Park (now Safari Park) under Ron Swaisgood, who is now the director of applied animal ecology of ICR. She made the transition to being a volunteer behavioral observation researcher and when an opening occurred on the panda research team in 1998, she applied and joined the staff.

In addition to her work at the zoo, Hall is active in her community. The mother of three children serves on a local community planning board, the Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve Citizens Advisory Committee, is a junior member on the San Diego County Fish and Wildlife Commission and is the co-chair of the “Yes on CC” campaign for the Del Mar Union School District’s November bond.

Hall has been a part of the panda breeding program at the zoo pretty much from its inception. When they started, they knew so little about the lives of the panda species. She said she is proud of all the work they have done and all they have been able to learn.

“The panda is the only endangered bear in all eight species and it was really important to know as much as we could because how do you conserve an animal you know nothing about?” Hall said. “We’ve learned so much…We’ve come a long way in making sure the species will be around for my grandchildren to see.”

Hall said it’s gratifying knowing that the research they complete and the knowledge gained allows them to make recommendations that make a difference in preserving the species.

“I think what I like most about working with the bears is that we’ve really made a lot of progress and we’re still learning in the process,” Hall said. “In July when the most recent cub was born there were several moments when we all just looked at each other as a team, thinking ‘here’s another educational moment.’ There’s always something to learn. Science really is about discovery and as long as there’s discovery, it’s fun and motivating.”

While Hall is constantly keeping watch on the bears, she does not interact with them.

“My job as a behavioral researcher is to be wallpaper,” Hall said. “I don’t want them to notice me at all. I want them to go about their business and give me the best, normal natural behavior they can.”

The sun bear is on Hall’s list for her next research project—they are not yet endangered but are definitely at risk as they lose about a football field a day of habitat in Southeast Asia. Hall is trying to build a project in Borneo to study how the bears are responding to all that human development and noise.

Currently the San Diego Zoo is home to four pandas.

Gao Gao, the father of five of the six cubs born at the zoo, is the “old man” of about 20 years old.

Hall was involved in bringing Gao Gao to San Diego from the Wolong Giant Panda Research Center, spending six months there observing him as a potential breeding partner for Bai Yun.

“Once we got him here in early 2003 he came out of quarantine and within a month he was breeding, and a cub was born that year,” Hall said. “He’s quite a special guy, he’s the only natural breeding male in the U.S.”

The only other zoos in the country with pandas (The National Zoo, Zoo Atlanta and the Memphis Zoo) have only been successful in breeding through artificial insemination. Some captive pandas have been able to breed naturally but the babies did not survive.

Hall was with the zoo to see the first panda born in the United States in 1999 with the birth via artificial insemination of Hua Mei. Bai Yun has given birth to six pandas now: Mei Sheng, Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, Yun Zi and the newest cub. Due to the zoo’s research loan with China, pandas born in the U.S. are sent back to China when they turn 3 years old.

“Some would like to see them stay, the public gets really attached to the cubs, but they aren’t contributing to the next generation of giant pandas if they just stay here with mom and dad,” said Hall.

Since Hua Mei has gone back to China, she has given birth to nine pandas. Su Lin also had her first cub last year in a semi-wild enclosure, proof that they are doing exactly what it is they are sent back to China for.

Currently visitors can check out Gao Gao and the tree-climbing Yun Zi in the Panda Trek exhibit at the zoo but Bai Yun and the cub will stay in their den until December as they are not quite ready for their close-up just yet.

Panda cubs are born altricial, meaning they are basically helpless. Pandas are only in utero for 50 days, so they still have not developed when they are born as little, pink “blobs.” The iconic black and white color doesn’t appear for two weeks. Even now, the cub’s eyes are not yet open and his ears are still sealed—he relies heavily on mom.

“The cubs can’t thermo-regulate on their own, they need mom to hold them,” Hall said. “Pandas spend more time holding their babies than any other species.”

What panda researchers have learned is that the mother and cub need solitude, quiet and no distractions after the birth of a cub.  Being a panda mom and never putting the baby down is very demanding work, Hall said, and it’s important to have an environment that is low on stress and outside noises.

Both pandas are available to view on the Panda Cam on the zoo’s website. Per Chinese tradition, the baby will not be named for 100 days, but as the 100-day mark falls on Election Day, Nov. 6, they are waiting until 107 days to make the name official.

The public will be invited to vote on the cub’s name.

Check out the Panda Cam at sandiegozoo.org/pandacam.

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