Koko and Lala are grandparents! New Red Panda cub thriving at Edmonton Valley Zoo

The Edmonton Valley Zoo has a tradition when it comes to naming animals. The zoo staff member who first sees a baby has the privilege of naming the new arrival.

When Sandy Helliker looked through the nest box camera on August 1, she was the first to glimpse the zoo’s latest Red Panda cub. She named the baby Qiji, which means “miracle” in Mandarin. Sandy, the Animal Care Team Lead at the Edmonton Valley Zoo,  has hand-raised seven Red Pandas born at the zoo but this time mother Pip is doing all of the parenting. I asked Sandy a few questions about Qiji and her mom.

What makes Qiji so special?

What makes Qiji so special is that her mother, Pip, who was hand raised, is successfully rearing her offspring. That’s a real accomplishment for us for a couple of reasons. First, it means our breeding program is successful and second, we know we are providing Pip with everything she needs to feel comfortable enough to do the mothering on her own. That’s a real accomplishment with a hand-raised animal.

The zoo has produced a number of cubs over the years and Pip is the first cub of all of the cubs that has successfully produced any offspring. On top of that, she is raising the cub on her own, which we are very proud of.

How is baby panda doing?

At about seven weeks old, Qiji is doing incredibly well. Mom has been taking excellent care of her – doing everything she should. Qiji has been showing just exactly the same type of weight gain as the hand-raised cubs (we don’t do a lot of hands-on work right now, the only time we touch the baby is to weigh her) and developing at the same rate as the hand-raised cubs.

Qiji still eats and sleeps a lot but she is getting more active. We have a nest box camera so we can watch what she’s doing and we see her starting to get a little more active. She is starting to play with her feet, she is laying on her back and rolling around. She seems to be progressing physically and mentally exactly like she should.

She was a milky chocolate colour when she was born. Her colour has started to darken up and she is starting to get a little bit of red tinge to her hair. Mom continues to nurse her. Baby pandas are usually weaned between 7.5 – 8 months.

Where is Qiji living?

In a nest box that’s about 1.5 feet wide, 3 feet long and 1.5 feet tall. It has a little vestibule and two openings; one on the top and one on the side. The nest box is dark because in the wild the nest would be dark. We have an infrared camera to observe the pandas in the nest box, which is really an invaluable tool in our day to day care.  The main nest box is inside the non-public area of the enclosure but we have put other nest boxes in a few places in the yard because in the wild Red Pandas change nest boxes when they move around looking for food.

How would you describe Pip as a mom?

It is really amazing watching Pip because she is doing such an awesome job. For example, when she decides it’s time for the baby to nurse, she will pick Qiji up, lay on her side and put Qiji on her tummy for feeding. It is really neat for us to see that type of behaviour. We have never had a mother panda that has actually raised her own young so we are learning as well.

Pip is very attentive, caring, doing everything she should. She is still protective but she is letting us do what we need to do to ensure the baby is doing well and that she is doing well.

Can people see the baby panda?

It’s hard to predict whether a visitor will see Qiji. Two weeks ago, Pip started taking Qiji outside the nest box for the first time, and then people could get a glimpse of her.

Typically pandas don’t take their babies out of the nest box until they are about 90 days old. But it was unusually hot for that time of year and Pip starting taking the baby outside.

We took precautions – no road traffic, no construction near the enclosure – so we didn’t disturb them. Now that we know she is doing okay we are relaxing some of those restrictions.

You are asking zoo visitors to help collect information about the pandas?

Yes, as long as the weather is suitable, we’ll have a log book by the enclosure for people to make observations and write about what they see. If Pip and Qiji aren’t out in the yard, then just log the time that you were there and that the pandas weren’t visible in the yard. If you see Pip outside in the yard by herself, log it. If you see Pip in the yard nursing the baby, write that in the book.

People can give us some very important information by just logging what they see going on in the yard. If people say Pip took the baby into one nest box and then moved her to another nest box, then we will learn what nest box she may like using and which ones she may not like using.

How will the information from the log book help you?

We will learn more about the pandas’ behaviour, particularly when zookeepers aren’t around. Animals can act differently when we’re around compared to when the public is around. Sometimes when animals hear the staff moving around in the non- public areas, they will be expecting to get fed and they will be sitting and waiting at a gate; maybe not doing what they would do if the staff weren’t there.

What’s in the future for Qiji?

Qiji is a very important part of Red Panda Species Survival Plan. Her grandparents came to the Edmonton Valley Zoo from Japan, and those genetics are very important because they aren’t exhibited in the North American Red Panda population.

When she is old enough she will go on to do her part to increase the population within North America of Red Pandas. In Spring 2012 I expect she will go to another zoo where she will have a boyfriend waiting for her.

Is it hard to say good-bye?

We know from the beginning when we expect a panda will be leaving us. We know they are going to a good facility that has the knowledge and skills to take care of them. I have visited the pandas that have gone to the Toronto Zoo and the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin. It was really nice to see how they are housed, that they are being well taken care of, and talk with their keepers. When you visit them, it gives you a sense of satisfaction and confirms that it’s a good thing that we are doing.

And the Edmonton Valley Zoo is well known for its expertise in red pandas.

Yes, I was told this summer at a Red Panda Species Survival Plan session that any of the neo natal questions that they get for the refulgens (or styani) subspecies, they just forward them to be me now because I have hand raised so many. I have talked to keepers from Canada, US and Europe about hand-raising babies.

Qiji was 135 g at birth and is currently a healthy 710 g. The father is Ralphie who came to the Edmonton Valley Zoo in 2009 from Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg. Qiji’s grandparents are Koko and Lala who came to the Edmonton Valley Zoo from Japan in 2004. The Edmonton Valley Zoo will continue to provide updates about Qiji on this blog.

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  1. […] an interview with Qiji’s caregiver Sandy Helliker, the Animal Care Team Lead at the Edmonton Valley […]

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