- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 26, 2011

Round-the-clock surveillance, spacious accommodations and a team of specialists available at a moment’s notice, all for a potential panda no bigger than a stick of butter.

The National Zoo is hoping that having spared no special treatment for its 12-year-old female giant panda, Mei Xiang, the signs that point to the possible birth of a tiny cub will swing in the Zoo’s favor - news that local and visiting animal fans said they look forward to hearing.

“I think it’s always just fascinating to pay attention to what we don’t know,” Chevy Chase resident Virginia Broaddus said. “It’s also a nice family opportunity to play ‘what if,’ as well.”

Ms. Broaddus and her 5-year-old daughter, Mary Blair Whytsell, were at the zoo Sunday, along with thousands of other families to see the animals and attempt a glimpse at the panda in question. Mei Xiang was tucked into a distant corner taking a cool nap in her pen and oblivious to the attention for much of the morning.

As her daughter ate a strawberry ice cream bar, Ms. Broaddus said her family moved to the area five years ago, roughly the time Mei Xiang gave birth to her first cub, Tai Shan, but “we weren’t here long enough to appreciate it.”

Mary Blair said matter-of-factly she thinks “it’s going to be a boy,” but Ms. Broaddus chose not to be overly confident and instead considered that “it’s a nice way to speculate in the area,” compared with some of the other questions and unknown answers that come out of Washington. There have been several births of giant pandas at the National Zoo, but only Tai Shan survived more than a few days.

Tai Shan, born in July 2005, became an instant Washington celebrity and a major attraction at the zoo. An agreement with China that kept the young panda in Washington was originally slated for two years, but extended until February 2010.

After failed mating attempts at the beginning of the year, Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated using frozen semen from Tian Tian, the male giant panda at the zoo, who is also Tai Shan’s father. The average gestation period for a giant panda ranges from three to six months. A definite timeline is hard to pin down because the fertilized egg does not attach itself to the mother’s uterine wall immediately, zoo officials said.

It’s also difficult to see a growing belly on a pregnant panda because the animals normally carry extra weight around their abdomens, so scientists at the zoo just count the days from the time Mei Xiang is artificially inseminated.

Every year, female giant pandas exhibit physical and behavioral signs of a possible pregnancy, zoo officials said. The signs include elevated hormone levels, nesting and a loss of appetite. Regular ultrasound tests are conducted, as well as a check of hormone levels in the panda’s urine, but there is no definite answer yet as to whether or not there will be a cub at the end of this summer.

“If she’s pregnant, she’s carrying it really well,” Stephen Redmond, a Saratoga Springs, N.Y. resident, said jokingly. “Her ankles look good, not swollen.”

Mr. Redmond was visiting the zoo with his family, including daughter Madison, 10, and son Evan, 7, who were holding stuffed-animal pandas. They all agreed “of course” they’d like to see the zoo welcome a new panda.

A 24-hour video observation began on Friday, and most of the indoor panda exhibit is closed to maintain quiet for the potential mom. A self-declared panda fan, New Jersey resident Marie Tizon was on her fourth visit to the zoo and walking in the panda exhibit with her “I Heart Pandas” bag when she found out about the possible pregnancy. “That’s very exciting!” she said. “It’s completely news to me.”