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Panda pregnancy? No one knows, but zoo prepares

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If one of the pandas residing in Cleveland Park gets pregnant this spring, and if the pregnancy progresses to birth, and even if the panda mother can’t or won’t nurse her cub, the panda keepers at the National Zoo have a plan.

Make that a formula. But as longtime panda-watchers know, there’s nothing certain about panda pregnancy or birth. Just because giant panda Mei Xiang has been busy constructing a nest of bamboo and mulberry branches, and red panda Shama has something in her tummy that feels like a new cub, doesn’t mean there is a panda cub (or cubs) on the way.

Got that? No certainty. It’s important to manage expectations in this panda-crazed town.

But if a panda were to pop out, the zoo staff is ready.

“I wasn’t this prepared for having my own kids,” said senior curator Brandie Smith as she worked over the multipage protocols Wednesday morning, just two quick hops from an incubator that could be used, if necessary, to ease a panda’s transition into the world.

Scientists artificially inseminated Mei Xiang in January after she and her companion, Tian Tian, failed to mate successfully. Panda gestation usually lasts 90 to 185 days, so if the insemination worked, a cub could make an appearance in the next few weeks.

So within arm’s reach, under the guidance of two nutritionists, about 10 young staff members practiced making panda formula — part puppy-milk formula, part human infant formula (Enfamil), part distilled water, all strained at least three times to eliminate any clumps that could get caught in a bottle’s nipple and be aspirated by the tiny newborn. No blender is used because it can break down important fats. It will be heated in a warm-water bath because microwaves can also alter the milk’s chemistry.

The hand-produced formula has the consistency of buttermilk, creamy and thick, and a grassy bouquet, resonant of romps in bamboo forests. But maybe the formula won’t have to be used at all.

“Always our first choice is to leave them with the mother,” said nutritionist Karen Lisi.

“Our goal is to never have to do this. Mei Xiang was a great mother the first time around, and we expect her to be a great mother again,” Smith said.

But nature, red in tooth and claw, can intervene. In the wild, giant pandas often give birth to twins and simply choose to nurse the stronger of the two cubs. If that happens in captivity, the National Zoo staff will do everything it can to keep the other cub of this endangered species alive, including hand-feeding it every three hours, 18 hours a day, for six months.

Despite their cuddly appearance and their appeal to zoo visitors, giant pandas are first and foremost bears. Separating a mother bear from her cub is not something one does in the wild without risking severe injury.

At the zoo, however, the staff has to be able to remove a butter-stick-size newborn from its mother without causing trauma.

Shama, the red panda, who is most likely pregnant, is being trained to accept that if the staff takes a much-loved object from her, it will be returned. Standing in for a cub at the moment is a pear, and Shama is growing used to the idea of trusting that her favorite treat, once taken away, will be returned.

Red pandas are much smaller than their giant neighbors and are more closely related to raccoons than bears. Like the bears, however, it remains to be seen whether she will be willing to surrender a cub.

© The Washington Post Company