Zoo's Pandas Produce First Cub, High Hopes

Dr. Suzan Murray, chief veterinarian at the National Zoo, monitors the newborn panda cub Saturday at the zoo.
Dr. Suzan Murray, chief veterinarian at the National Zoo, monitors the newborn panda cub Saturday at the zoo. (Ho - Reuters)
By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 10, 2005

The National Zoo's panda Mei Xiang gave birth yesterday to a squealing, squirming cub the size of a stick of butter, and elated zookeepers said she is giving it the tender care that befits its status as one of the world's most endangered animals.

Even as they rejoiced in their first panda birth after years of effort, zoo officials cautioned that the coming days would be critical to the cub's survival. They praised the mothering skills of Mei Xiang, who was holding a rubber toy at the moment of birth and at first seemed surprised by her squawking cub. But she quickly gave it her full attention.

"She looked kind of startled for all of about two minutes, and then she picked the cub up," said Lisa M. Stevens, associate curator for pandas and primates. "She picked it right up and began cuddling and cradling it. The cub responded immediately and settled in."

It might be weeks before keepers can get close enough to learn the cub's sex, because the mother will hold it close and the keepers will not intervene unless something goes wrong. A photo released by the zoo shows the newborn -- which weighs perhaps a quarter of a pound compared with its mother's 250 -- resting on Mei Xiang's arm in an indoor den at the Panda House as staff and volunteers watch via closed-circuit cameras in a nearby room.

The road to panda motherhood has been a three-decade cycle for the National Zoo marked by many hopeful springs and sad summers. The zoo's previous pair of pandas had five cubs during the 1980s, but none lived more than a few days. From the moment Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived from China in 2000, they have been celebrities and the subject of speculation about how soon they would add a cub to the tiny population of giant pandas worldwide.

The Panda House will be closed for at least three months to avoid disturbing mother and baby, zoo officials said, but the public will be able to monitor them on round-the-clock webcams. The outdoor panda yard will remain open, and zoo visitors will be able to see Tian Tian when he is outside, as he was for much of yesterday.

Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated March 11. She had recently been acting like a panda mother-to-be -- sleeping much of the day, eating little, building a bamboo nest in her den and cradling apples. Hormone tests showed that she could be pregnant, and volunteers with Friends of the National Zoo began a 24-hour watch last month. But pandas often have false pregnancies. Zoo veterinarians hoped to capture a pregnancy on a sonogram, but the panda had not sat still for one since June 20.

It was about 1 a.m. yesterday when volunteer Susan Hughes, watching a monitor, noticed that Mei Xiang seemed restless and unable to settle down. The animal was licking herself, grunting and honking. Hughes had seen videos of panda births and thought those were signs of labor, so she called Stevens, who asked longtime keeper Brenda Morgan to come in.

Hughes, who has been on panda watches since the 1980s, was so busy taking notes as part of her volunteer duty that she missed the birth. She heard the young panda's squeals, she said, and then became so excited that she couldn't write anymore. It was 3:41 a.m.

"There's a cub! There's a cub!" Morgan exclaimed to Stevens over the phone. Both are veteran zoo employees who were on the delegation that went to China to bring the pandas to Washington.

"She's doing a great job at being a mom," an exhausted Morgan said as she left the Panda House about 1 p.m. "She's cuddling the baby. If it's fussy, she repositions it.

"She's very bright," Morgan added. "First babies are dicey. She's paying close attention. I'm happy for her."

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