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San Diego Zookeeper Kathy Hawk is a panda's best friend

Panda zookeeper

San Diego Zoo’s panda breeding program is one of the best in the world. Kathy Hawk keeps it running smoothly.

Dino Dinco

Working with one of this world's most mysterious and reclusive creatures has its moments of thrill ― and panic.

Not long after first-time giant panda mom Bai Yun gave birth in 1999 at the San Diego Zoo, senior keeper Kathy Hawk gazed at the monitor screen in horror as the tiny cub tumbled from Bai Yun's arms and lay still on the floor. Several anxious minutes passed before Hawk heard a tiny squeak.

"A Chinese animal behaviorist was visiting at the time," she recalls. "And he said, 'Oh, that's normal. They sleep so soundly, sometimes it takes us 15 minutes to wake them up!'" It was a moment of humility for Hawk, who, after nearly a decade of daily panda dealings, is still in awe of her charges. Keepers, she says, need intuition, compassion, infinite patience ― and a strong back. The zoo's four giant pandas eat 1½ tons of fresh bamboo each month.

Early on, Hawk learned that one does not match wills with a giant panda. "These guys, even though they're beautiful and cute and very playful, can be very stubborn," she says. "When they get it in their minds that they don't want to do something, you just sit and wait."

The zoo's panda program has had more than its share of successes. This past August saw the birth of Su Lin (the name means "a little bit of something very cute"), whose upbringing has unfolded under the watchful eye of a more seasoned, but otherwise unchanged keeper.

Hawk smiles. "I don't get as frantic now, but my job is still a passion."

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