- The Washington Times - Monday, September 17, 2012

It was a squawk heard ‘round the zoological world.

A giant panda cub was born at the National Zoo, officials said Monday, its entrance into the world — and the first panda birth for Washington, D.C., in seven years — marked by a cry so loud, it caught the attention of animal keepers.

“The cub squawked so loudly. It wasn’t the sight of it, it was the squawking,” said Suzan Murray, chief veterinarian at the National Zoo. She credited the powerful cry as the primary way animal experts are monitoring the health of mom and her new cub.

“The first thing [mother panda] Mei Xiang did was scoop up the cub,” Dr. Murray said. “Obviously, she’s tired and wants to fall asleep,” but when the cub starts crying “she cuddles it even closer.”

The newborn panda came into the world at 10:46 p.m. Sunday, more than seven years after Mei Xiang gave birth to her first cub Tai Shan in July 2005.

The birth came somewhat as a surprise to zoo staffers, who had begun monitoring Mei Xiang earlier this month when her hormone levels changed and she started building a nest. But the confirmation of an official birth, and not just a false pregnancy didn’t come until the cub let out its first cries.

“Six years of trying, six years of science, six years of effort to get to this important birth,” National Zoo Director Dennis Kelly said. “What a great day we got in D.C.”

The birth of the cub came with cautious hope from animal keepers who have tried unsuccessfully since 2007 to impregnate Mei Xiang.

The female panda arrived at the National Zoo in December 2000, on loan along with male panda Tian Tian, as part of a $10 million exchange agreement with the Chinese government. The arrival of the pair marked a turning point of the nearly 30-year-old panda program led by the zoo’s first pair of pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, who produced five cubs. None of them survived.

In 2005, Mei Xiang was successfully impregnated via artificial insemination and gave birth to Tai Shan.

The black-and-white cub became a celebrity in Washington, drawing millions of visitors to the zoo to catch a glimpse of the young panda frolicking in his enclosure.

Mr. Kelly said once the newest cub is healthy enough for a public viewing, he anticipates between 250,000 and 500,000 additional visitors to the 2 million already coming to the zoo annually.

Tai Shan was sent to China in 2010 as part of his parents on-loan agreement. In the years before and after his departure, zoo veterinarians and reproductive experts have tried to impregnate Mei Xiang. According to zoo statistics, the 14-year-old female has had five consecutive false pregnancies since 2007. Her chances of giving birth this year were at 10 percent, zoo officials said.

The average gestation period for a giant panda ranges from three to six months. A definite timeline is hard to pin down, however, because the fertilized egg does not attach itself to the mother’s uterine wall immediately.

To aid animal keepers in their determination of a pregnancy, they watch for certain behavior common during viable pregnancies, such as nesting, lack of eating and drinking, and hormone levels in the panda’s urine.

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