Darlene Stewart vividly recalls a week ago when she was told to close the Panda House because the female giant panda might be getting ready to deliver. Then nothing happened. For seven days, Stewart anxiously anticipated a birth.
Stewart, an employee of the Friends of the National Zoo, knew that zoo officials were not positive the giant panda was pregnant, but this mother of three was certain that Mei Xiang was about to give birth.
"When I got up this morning, I felt the panda was going to have a baby," Stewart, 42, said yesterday. "When my supervisor told me . . . I said, 'Oh really? A baby! A baby!' I got so excited."
Stewart's excitement was contagious. By midafternoon Stewart, who keeps count of the pandas' visitors, said 3,625 had stood in line to see Tian Tian, the proud papa, as he lounged, ate a panda popsicle -- a huge ice cube with fruit in the middle -- and snoozed in the outdoor panda yard. Mei Xiang and her cub were in isolation in a back den at the Panda House.
"It's a kind of pandamania for us," said K.A. Sykes, a police officer for the zoo who was guarding the Panda House from curious spectators. "We've been waiting so long. They won't be able to see [the cub], but they want to say they were here."
Many visitors were drawn to the zoo after hearing of the panda's birth, while others were surprised to learn that by pure luck they were there on such a historic day.
"Is it true that they had a baby this morning?" asked Scott Vooss of Virginia Beach, who came up for the weekend with his wife, Melinda, and children, Zoey and Maxwell.
"It will make the day extra special knowing we're here the first day of the baby panda's life," Vooss added.
Lucy Zheng of Ashburn said she had no idea about the delivery until someone in line at the exhibit mentioned that a panda had been born.
"That's big news," said Zheng, a researcher. "I had no idea. I was very delighted."
Others such as Renee Scholten, 32, of Harrisonburg, Va., said her family heard the news on the radio as they were leaving for the 31/2-hour trip.
"It was the highlight of the day," said Scholten, as she stood in line at the gift store to purchase two stuffed panda bears, panda postcards and a panda purse. "We were hoping we might get to see it."
But Scholten, a stay-at-home mom, said her children, Alexis, 6, and Jacob, 3, "just wanted to see the pandas."
So did 7-year-old Maria Zayas of Atlanta.
"I can't wait to see the pandas," Maria said as she walked toward the exhibit with her mother, father, little sister and baby brother.
"I like pandas because they're very pretty. My mom told me they have a playground, and when they sit down they look like stuffed animals," Maria said.
Stewart, the Friends of the National Zoo employee, was among the few who saw the videotape of the cub soon after it was born.
She was a bit taken aback by its appearance. It didn't look like a stuffed animal at all.
"It looked like a rat," she said. "It just had a long tail. I thought I was going to see a bear."