Eat your heartout, Washington. Tokyo has not only a baby panda, born June 1 at Ueno Park Zoo, but also a tape-recorded dial-a-panda service that enables Japanese panda lovers to hear their little darling's cries.
Some Potomac panda lovers began calling Tokyo yesterday after a Washington radio station broadcast the number (011-813-822-9999), which was installed by the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Co.
What is now music to the ears of an estimated 200,000 Japanese callers daily may sound like a homesick chicken to American ears. But it's panda baby talk.
The recording of a woman's voice, speaking Japanese, answers the phone and explains who the baby's parents are, how tiny it is and how big its mother is.
"Now let's listen to the first voice of the panda after birth," she says. The cries commence. A little later, the sound changes slightly, to something a bit more like a monkey. There is no mistaking that it is something very hungry.
*"This is the way the panda sounds when it wants something from the mother," says the woman, adding that the mother "loves the baby."
*The baby is believed to be the first panda born in captivity this year. Agence France-Presse reported that the dial-a-panda service has been so successful that Nippon Telephone has quadrupled the number of phone lines (to 168) but is still getting 4,000 complaints a day from people who can't get through. The service is earning the company about $11,170 a day, according to Tokyo's Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
Meanwhile, in Washington -- where the last panda watch, in December, turned out to be a false alarm -- Michael Robinson, director of the National Zoological Park, said yesterday he was "extraordinarily pleased" by the news of the Tokyo zoo's newborn.
And was he envious of Tokyo's good fortune?
"A sneaky little bit," he said.