Xiao Qi Ji the panda cub recently experienced snow for the first time and is starting to explore the outdoor portion of his exhibit at the National Zoo

By Amy Eskind
February 23, 2021 05:00 PM
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Giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji — the "little miracle" who continues to spread joy during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — has hit his 6-month milestone, and he's become a very social guy at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C.

"Every time he sees us, he's coming out of the den, wanting to interact," Marty Dearie, a panda keeper at the National Zoo, tells PEOPLE. "If we come walking in, he perks up and walks over and wants to interact with us. He mostly wants to play."

But, like a puppy, keepers have to discourage him from nibbling at them.

"We don't necessarily want a bear biting at us. But he's not trying to hurt us, he's just mouthing us," the keeper adds. "He's trying to interact — pandas interact with the world with their face, their nose, and their mouth. He's never rough or angry, if he's nipping it's for play."

The keepers at the National Zoo obviously adore Xiao Qi Ji, and the cub can't get enough of them either.

"He'll put his paws on us to look at us, he might stand on our leg. If I sit on the rock ledge in the enclosure, he'll come up next to me, put his paws on me," Dearie says. "He's looking for scratches."

The cub also enjoys playing tug-of-war with rubberized toys, a fire hose, or bamboo — and doesn't seem to realized the other side is throwing the game.

"He's not strong enough to pull it away from me, but after we fight for it a little bit, I'll let him win," Dearie says. "Of course he wins, every time."

The keepers call the 27-pound cub Qi Ji (chi-ji) for short, and when they come in and call his name, he's immediately interested. Eventually, they'll teach him to come over when he's called.

For now, Qi Ji's caretakers have figured out another way to get the cub to do what they want. After playtime, they lure him into the den with a toy, some sweet potato, and a piece of bamboo so they can finish cleaning his enclosure.

"He'll eat himself to sleep," Dearie says of the panda's love for food.

In fact, Xiao Qi Ji sleeps most of the day. In the nine hours that keepers are at the zoo, the cub is asleep 75 percent of the time. The unwritten rule of the panda house is to let sleeping bears lie.

"They can wake up pretty grumpy," Dearie says. "I don't like being woken up from a nap either, so I totally get it."

During his waking hours, Xiao Qi Ji is enjoying more adventures. In early February, after the Washington D.C. area received some snow, keepers decided to show the awake cub the cold stuff. He wasn't ready for the full yard, so they carried him to their keeper area.

Credit: Smithsonian National Zoo

"We brought him out and let him see the snow. He was not super interested in it, but I find that to be pretty normal for them. That was the first time he'd seen it, it was cold," Dearie says.

Last week, the keepers decided the cub was ready to go into the outdoor portion of the panda exhibit for the first time.

"He doesn't know the outside exists, so it's always fun for us to get to show him something that he's never seen before and let him have his mind blown for a little bit. I'm sure he went out there and was like, 'What is all this?'" Dearie says of the moment.

"Everything out in the yard is brand new to him. He wasn't as focused on mom as he was on everything that was around, but he definitely was within eyesight of her at all times," he adds. "I'm sure there was a reassurance there that his mom was right there if something spooked him or he was unsure about something."

Credit: Smithsonian National Zoo

After walking around exploring, going inside and coming back out a few times, and following mom around a bit, Xiao Qi Ji retreated inside for the day. The cub hasn't been outside since. He can only go out when there is a dedicated staff member to watch him. Also, the weather hasn't cooperated. Even though giant pandas are cold-weather animals, well adapted to very low temperatures, the keepers want to ease the cub's exposure. After all, he's spent his entire life to date living in the heated indoors. Now that the temperatures are climbing, the cub will undoubtedly have more adventures outside.

Though his dad Tian Tian roams an adjacent yard, the cub will never play with his dad. It's not a panda thing.

Credit: Smithsonian National Zoo

"They're solitary," Dearie explains. "Males play absolutely no role in the rearing of the young. This is true of every bear species. We know that polar bears, brown bears, and black bears, males will kill offspring, even their own offspring if they get the chance. We have never seen or heard anything like that with giant pandas, but we obviously do not want to be the zoo that figures out that giant pandas might do that."

Nevertheless, the cub's human keepers relish the time they spend with the Xiao Qi Ji.

RELATED: Pandas Mei Xiang And Tian Tian Caught Playing In Snow At The National Zoo

"We talk about it all the time, there are literally 10 of us that get to do this," Dearie says. "It's crazy when you think about how many people are in this country, even how many people are zookeepers in this country. We're the only institution in the United States that has a baby giant panda, so we're the only ones getting to do this. I'm not blind to it."

"Not only is it fun — don't get me wrong, it's a blast — but it serves a purpose," he adds.

Sometime in the next year, Xiao Qi Ji will become too old and too large to play with his keepers, but he will still need to be comfortable with being handled from time to time.

"Having him be that comfortable with us will allow us to be able to shift him when we're not going in with him, and be able to get him trained for things like blood draws and ultrasounds and vaccinations. All of that is supercritical work that we need to be able to do, so having him be that trusting and engaged with us makes our job all that much easier," Dearie explains.

The zoo is currently closed due to COVID-19, but panda enthusiasts can watch Xiao Qi Ji live on the Giant Panda Cam between 7:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. EDT.