But Malinsky decided to check anyhow. She fired up her laptop and logged on to the camera that had been intently trained on Mei for the past few weeks. She couldn’t see much, but she could hear the panda panting. She also heard a strange squeaking noise in the background.
Maybe there was something wrong with the camera, she thought. She logged off, and logged back on again. The squeaking continued. Then it hit her. This wasn’t a glitch. These were the squeals of a cub.
Thus, heralded by a cry like that of a squeezed tub toy, did Washington learn that seven years after the birth of the zoo’s only surviving panda cub, it had another on which to lavish its prodigious affection.
The birth transforms the zoo’s multimillion-dollar giant panda research project, guarantees that Mei will remain in Washington for several more years and gives scientists an unexpected panda reproduction surprise to ponder.
“This is one of the best of things that can happen to Washington right now,” zoo director Dennis Kelly said.
The zoo said the panda house has been closed and will probably remain so for several weeks. The cub, which keepers said probably weighs about four ounces and is quite fragile, will not make its debut for several months.
Experts said they do not yet know the sex of the cub, and won’t for about a month, when they have a chance to examine it. Kelly said the zoo will abide by the Chinese custom of waiting 100 days before naming the cub.
He said that residents of the metro area will have a say in the naming, however.
“It’s important for Washington,” Kelly said.
Zoo officials, intensely focused on panda reproduction, had been vocal about wanting Mei replaced if she did not have a cub this year.
And they were ready to open replacement talks with China, which owns and leases all giant pandas.
Malinsky, who was off duty, already had checked Mei on the panda cam a half-dozen times over the weekend. She said she has been working with the giant pandas for about five years.
“We knew that if she were to have a cub, we were nearing D-Day,” Malinsky said, even though zoo experts were predicting that those chances were probably less than 10 percent, given the previous failures.
On Sunday, “something just said, ‘Let me check on Mei before I go to bed,’ ” she said.
When Malinsky realized what she heard, she was “blown away,” she said. “It was like a miracle.”
She grabbed her cellphone and began texting co-workers. “If you guys are awake, there are strange noises coming from Mei Xiang’s den,” she said she texted.
She then telephoned the zoo’s veteran panda keeper, Laurie Thompson, and said: “You’re not going to believe this. You need to turn on your computer. There’s a cub.”