As the lead panda keeper at the San Diego Zoo, Kathy Hawk knows well enough how much public attention giant pandas get. She’s worked at the zoo for 24 years and with the giant pandas since they arrived in 1996.

Getting to care for the famous pandas after working her way up to being a keeper at the zoo is “a Cinderella story,” she said.

We sat down this week to talk about how to keep the zoo’s five giant pandas happy, her role in conservation and how caring for animals is her dream come true.

How do you get a panda to trust you? How do you keep a panda happy?

Animals are in a captive situation so one of the biggest challenges of being a keeper is how do you keep your animals healthy and happy? As they get older, food is a really big motivator with these guys. If you don’t have the right combination of bamboo, he’s going to start pacing, he’s going to start bleating and that is an indication to us they’re not happy. So I always say, when I see pandas after they’ve eaten and I see them happily taking a nap, I know I’ve done my job. I say a sleeping panda is a happy panda.

What’s your favorite panda memory?

Births would be one of them. It’s so rare. I mean how many people in the world get to witness something like that? And five of them in fact, so I feel very fortunate.

When Bai Yun [the mother panda] was really, really young and I was working a lot of hours here and she got really, really attached to me and then when I finally took some days off, it was reported to me that she went off her food and was very nervous. I remember coming in one day and she was way up in a tree. The keeper who was my relief at the time was trying to call her in. Then I called her and all of a sudden the head went up, she’s looking and she sees me and comes right down. I feel a lot of closeness and camaraderie with her and a lot of people ask me, what’s your favorite panda? And I have to say it’s her. We’ve been together since Day 1. Now that she’s pushing 20, she’s still as beautiful. She’s my baby girl.

As every new keeper comes in to the area, I really, really encourage them to hang out with the pandas, let them get to know you, your voice, your smell, because of the training and all the intensive research we do here, it’s really important that the keepers do have a close connection with the pandas.

How did you become interested in being an animal caretaker? Is it something you always wanted to do?

As long as I can remember, I’ve always loved animals. I used to work for free at a stable to clean stalls and feed horses just for the privilege. I didn’t want money. I just wanted to ride them. It was just being around them and it kind of grew into something larger than life.

And it’s really kind of funny for me personally. I never had children of my own so I felt more of my mothering went with animals.

When I first came to the San Diego Zoo, I took a job in buildings and grounds because I thought well, at least I’ll be near the animals, it’d be better than working in a gift shop or flipping hamburgers in a food stand. So my joke on this whole story is I go from scrubbing bathrooms to taking care of million-dollar animals. Dreams can come true. It takes a lot of hard work, patience and perseverance but you can achieve it if you really, really set your goals to it.

What’s it like to work with something that’s endangered, that people worry about becoming extinct?

When I first started with pandas, I was scared to death. It’s a high-profile animal, extremely rare animal and I was responsible for them. So I was nervous in the beginning, because I wanted to do a good job. Here I was all of a sudden in the limelight, and every move you were doing was being watched. I think once I got beyond that point, the biggest satisfaction I have working with these animals is that, in my own small way, I am partaking in conservation. I do care for these animals; I do participate with the researchers. A lot of data they’ve collected has come about as result of working with the keepers.

What have your personal efforts been with conservation?

Part of the reason we have giant pandas here is we want to learn about them. Bai Yun, our female, we’ve been able to do ultrasounds on her so we’ve been able to document a growing panda fetus all the way up to practically the day before she gave birth. How do you do an ultrasound with a giant panda?

That’s where the keeper comes in. We trained her to lie down using a food reward and a clicker — the clicker is a sound the pandas would hear and know they were doing the correct behavior — and stay in that position while the veterinarian would run an ultrasound all over her abdomen. Now had we not been able to do that or train that behavior, we would never been able to get that data. So in a small way, we’ve made history.

(The) one thing that keeps me from being 100 percent sad when our pandas leave (is) I know they’re going back to do an important job. Here we have animals with a new bloodline to introduce in the captive population with hopes that generations of these cubs may be candidates for re-introduction in the wild.

You try to look at the big picture down the road, because I think the public as a whole, all they can think about is, “How sad, our cub is leaving,” and I go “No! You have to look at the big picture here.” They are partaking in a conservation program here. Think about it. (Their) great-grandsons could be generations of pandas that could be re-introduced in the wild and help populate wild pandas.

But we need to study them first.

— Interview conducted and edited by DAGNY SALAS

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