July 9, 2005

Panda cub born at Washington’s National Zoo

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A panda cub the size of a stick of
butter was born early Saturday at the National Zoo (in
Washington), the first for the pair of endangered bears now
living there and a milestone for the zoo.

Mei Xiang gave birth at 3:41 a.m. (0741 GMT) and zoo
veterinarians were watching closely to see how the tiny cub,
which weighs just ounces (grams), will fare in its first
critical days.

"Luckily, right now both mother and cub are doing really,
really well," said zoo spokesman John Gibbons. "Mei Xiang is
proving that she knows best and she's doing exactly what Mother
Nature intended her to do."

That would be cradling and nursing the white-haired cub,
which Gibbons said was about "the size of a stick of butter."

The newborn's sex may not be determined for weeks as zoo
officials stay out of the panda den while mother and baby bond
and the cub builds immunity from infection.

"From a health standpoint this is a critical, critical
time. In no way are we out of the woods yet," said Gibbons.

The striking black-and-white giant panda is one of the
world's best known endangered species. Mei Xiang and the cub's
father, Tian Tian, are on a 10-year loan to the Smithsonian's
zoo from their native China. Any cub they produce belongs to
China and would be sent there after weaning in about one or two

Successful panda births are rare, especially in captivity.

"It's a huge, huge deal that we have a panda cub at the
National Zoo and it's something we've been waiting for a long,
long time," Gibbons said in a telephone interview.

The zoo's previous pair of the bamboo-munching bears, the
late Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, produced five cubs between 1983
and 1989 but all of them died within days.

Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated on March 11, but zoo
officials were not sure until now that she was pregnant,
Gibbons said.

Pandas have "pseudopregnancies" -- in which they exhibit
pregnant behaviors including nesting -- every time they mate or
are inseminated, as Mei Xiang has been the last two springs.

Even the ultrasound image, given Mei Xiang's furry mass,
was too blurry to make out a cub, Gibbons said.

"Mei Xiang is one of the few pandas in the world that is
fully trained to have an ultrasound," he said. "She is trained
to lay down, someone feeds her pears and apples while someone
else does an ultrasound on her.

"A week and a half ago she decided she didn't want to have
ultrasounds anymore. We were kind of flying blind after that."

Only about 20 giant pandas live in zoos outside China,
according to the zoo, and the mother and cub will be watched
around the clock. If the cub survives, it won't go on exhibit
for three months.

Which is probably a good thing for panda fans.

"Cute is not a word I would use in describing it," Gibbons
said of the newborn cub. "It's somewhat bald, eyes are closed,
kind of pink and it wiggles around a little bit. It's this
tiny, tiny thing."