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Giant pandas are being maintained in captivity largely for the purpose of creating a reproductively viable population that will support conservation of the species in nature. Toward this end, researchers and managers have targeted many aspects of husbandry for improvement through scientific investigations. Among the many priorities is the ability to measure ‘well-being’ and possibly alleviate ‘stress’ imposed by a captive environment. Stress research has been increasingly incorporated into captive wildlife breeding programmes, in part because it is widely believed that small enclosures may not allow animals to execute normal escape and avoidance responses to aversive stimuli. Coping mechanisms may be constrained, thus resulting in stress that can compromise psychological and physiological health, including reproduction (Carlstead & Shepherdson, 2000). Among the many deleterious consequences, stress compromises immune function, reproduction, pregnancy sustainability and maternal care (Munck et al., 1984; Baker et al., 1996; Carlstead, 1996; Moberg & Mench, 2000).
How susceptible is the giant panda to stress imposed by ex situ environments? The charisma of this species causes it to attract large and noisy crowds. Also, giant pandas are commonly held at major institutions that often undertake large construction projects. This chapter deals with the sensitivity of the giant panda to its captive environment. Stress, more than other biological concepts, has limited utility at the population level. In a single species, however, individual animals seem to vary remarkably in response to environmental change.
The medical management of giant pandas has advanced significantly in recent years due to cooperative programmes between Chinese and western institutions, specifically zoos and breeding centres. Key to these partnerships have been veterinarians who have become committed to understanding the diseases affecting this species. Progress has emanated from efforts such as the Biomedical Survey (see Chapter 4) and international personnel exchanges related to giant panda loans to western zoos (see Chapter 22). The result has been many opportunities for veterinarians working with giant pandas to share philosophies, tools, expertise and knowledge which, in turn, have vastly improved medical care of this species in captivity.
There are unique as well as overlapping medical issues impacting the giant panda according to age. For example, Chapter 13 has already addressed health-related topics facing neonates and juveniles. After four years of age, however, the giant panda has matured physically and sexually, leaving behind many of the diseases associated with its youth. Then, after the age of 20 years and during the period of reproductive senescence, another set of potential problems face managers and veterinarians – degenerative changes related to the geriatric condition. Because health and reproduction are improving so rapidly in the ex situ panda population, it is a given that more animals will live longer, requiring more sophisticated veterinary management to ensure well-being for up to 25 years of age or beyond.
This chapter describes the authors' medical experiences with adult and aged giant pandas living in zoos, especially in the USA.
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