“I am on the panda cam right now. I look at it between appointments. I watch it at night. I watch it when I get up in the morning. I watch it when I go to bed. I am completely entranced,” said Marjorie Swett, 62, a Bethesda psychotherapist, who, if she wanted, could do a side gig as a panda-cam color commentator. “Right now, she’s sleeping and cuddling. . . . Now she’s rolling over. She just went from an upright position and went gracefully on the ground, still folding the baby into herself . . . and her legs are up the wall. She looks totally comfortable.”
Since Mei Xiang gave birth on Aug. 23, legions of panda lovers have bombarded the zoo’s Web site, clicking on one of two available panda cams to spy on the mother and cub as they bond inside what the animals believe is their private den.
From late July (when new high-definition cameras were installed) to Friday, the zoo has recorded more than 847,000 clicks on its panda-cam Web page, with about 529,000 of those coming since the day of the cub’s birth, according to Mike Thorpe, the zoo’s Web specialist. More than 52,000 hours of panda-cam viewing have occurred since July — and more than 30,000 since the cub’s birth. (That doesn’t even include the number of times people have clicked “play” on the panda cam on the zoo’s mobile app, data that weren’t available Friday.)
The zoo’s pandas live in a veritable surveillance state, with 38 cameras capturing Mei Xiang, her newborn and the male panda, Tian Tian. The action tantalizing much of the Washington region and beyond happens inside one of Mei Xiang’s dens, where mother and child bond under $12,000 worth of high-definition cameras and infrared lights.
The zoo used to have only standard-definition cameras that let the public watch the pandas on Windows-enabled computers. The old system kicked people off after only five minutes of continuous viewing.
But this year, thanks to grants from an anonymous donor and the Ford Motor Co. Fund, the zoo upgraded to a system that lets people using mobile and desktop devices — Mac or PC — watch for 15 minutes before being bumped off. (There’s no limit if you’re watching the panda cam on the zoo’s app.)
But even the tricked-out technology wasn’t able to stop the servers from crashing on the day Mei Xiang gave birth. The panda cam on the zoo’s Web site was clicked on 128,000 times. Since then, the average number of daily clicks has fallen to about 66,000.
The most recent footage to titillate the panda populace was of the newborn trying to stand up. (“At least something important is happening in DC!” someone clever from Maine tweeted, along with a link to the video.)