Panda's False Pregnancy Brings Heartbreak at the Zoo

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 7, 2007

After the weeks of waiting and watching, and test samples being rushed by car to a lab in Virginia, and the cutting-edge science and the crossed fingers, the National Zoo's bad news finally came in an e-mail at 4:16 p.m. Thursday.

"Hello, all," Steve Monfort, the zoo's associate director for conservation and science, wrote to the panda team. Based on the latest hormone tests and other factors, he was pained to report, the female giant panda Mei Xiang had experienced a false pregnancy. Data and graphs were enclosed.

After all the work, there would be no cub this year.

"It was a big letdown," Monfort said yesterday from the zoo's Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, where the testing was done and where he wrote his e-mail.

"Everybody worked so hard," he said. "You wait a whole year, and all of a sudden you realize it's not going to happen. . . . It's a little bit heartbreaking when it doesn't work."

Although the zoo's announcement about the pregnancy yesterday was not a complete surprise to scientists, it still spread dismay through a circle of experts who have grappled with the capriciousness of giant panda reproduction across several continents.

"That's just the way it goes," said JoGayle Howard, the zoo reproduction expert who last April performed the procedures in which Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated. "We can try it again."

Copper Aitken-Palmer, a zoo veterinarian and panda reproductive physiologist who has been conducting research in China for the past four years, likened the all-or-nothing effort to bringing a spaceship down from orbit. Only "there's no contingency landing plans," she said. "You can't circle around again and come back down."

Giant pandas, native to China, are endangered. There are only about 1,600 in the wild and slightly more than 200 in captivity. And in captivity, panda reproduction can be problematic.

Zoo officials said yesterday that scrutiny of Mei Xiang's hormone levels, ultrasound tests and behavior patterns, coupled with the absence of a cub, led to their conclusion after a 13-week vigil.

The 230-pound Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated April 4 and 5 with sperm specially preserved from a male panda, Gao Gao, in the San Diego Zoo.

Hopes were raised when Mei Xiang's hormone levels subsequently rose and she began exhibiting some prenatal behaviors. But zoo officials consistently urged caution, noting that panda pregnancies, and those in all bears, are notoriously difficult to diagnose.

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