At National Zoo, panda pregnancy watch begins anew

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The exercises. The quiet. The low light. The indoor setting.

The National Zoo did everything it could to make its giant panda compound a veritable love suite this year.

Alas, things didn't go as hoped. The zoo's giant panda pair tried but once again were unable to mate successfully over the weekend, the zoo said Tuesday.

So once again, scientists artificially inseminated the female, Mei Xiang, to begin Washington's annual giant panda pregnancy watch.

And once again, zoo scientists have the highest of hope for another cub.

"We're really excited every year," said Brandie Smith, a senior zoo curator. "This is another year and we're really hopeful that in four months from now we'll be talking about a baby panda cub."

The zoo is focusing intense efforts this year and next on trying to achieve a pregnancy, but it may be able to request new pandas from China if the effort is unsuccessful.

Smith said Mei Xiang, 12, and Tian Tian, 13, the male, were put together Saturday morning to mate - indoors for a change. The mating venue usually is an outdoor panda yard, she said.

But on the advice of visiting Chinese veterinarian Tang Chunxiang of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, the animals were placed inside, where, it was hoped, the simulated rocks in the enclosure might help them with positioning.

The zoo also had the two pandas doing special exercises to help their mating technique, and keepers limited light and noise in the compound to avoid distraction.

But after the mating attempts did not work, the artificial insemination was performed on Saturday and Sunday.

The scientists used sperm taken from Tian Tian in 2005, which was, incidentally, the same year that artificial insemination produced the pregnancy that resulted in the pair's lone cub, Tai Shan.

Smith said it was not selected for that reason, and the zoo said it was from a different frozen batch.

The two giant pandas have been in Washington for more than a decade. China recently signed a new agreement allowing the zoo to have giant pandas for five more years.

Panda gestation usually lasts 90 to 185 days. In the coming weeks, experts will monitor Mei Xiang and perform ultrasounds to try to determine if she is pregnant. But because of the mysteries of panda reproduction, they may not know for sure unless a cub is or isn't born by spring.

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