- 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.

Fortunately for the men and women who know Mei Xiang, they began to become suspicious when she wasn’t as eager to interact with the keepers.

Nicole MacCorkle, an animal keeper who works primarily with the giant pandas at the zoo, said Mei Xiang “didn’t really eat a whole lot. In her training area, she didn’t engage, she didn’t want any part of that.”

The zoo is respecting the privacy of mother and cub, though at this point in the newborn’s life, there isn’t much to see except for a pink, hairless creature no bigger than a stick of butter, tucked up beneath its mother’s chin.

The sex of the panda can’t be tested for several weeks, and the cub is going to remain nameless to observe the Chinese tradition of waiting 100 days before choosing a name, officials said.

Not even veterinarians are allowed into the panda enclosure until Mei Xiang begins to leave the cub by itself for short periods of time. Until then, it’s a waiting game as animal keepers and curious fans monitor the cameras trained on the pair, and listen for signs of a new baby.

“We’ll listen to the cub and watch for the cub, but Mei Xiang will be the one to tell us” when it’s time, said Brandie Smith, senior curator of mammals at the zoo. “We’ve seen glimpses of the cub, but Mei Xiang built a bamboo nest and its hard to get a glimpse of anything in there.”

Though she knew there would be no chance of seeing the cub, Arlington resident Karen Knutson said when she woke up and heard the good news Monday morning, “I thought, we gotta go to the zoo.

“It’s such a big deal for us,” the 45-year-old said, pausing along one of the zoo’s walkways. “It’s a huge deal, and very exciting to the community. It’s a symbol of Chinese and American friendship.”

Amy Moore, a 34-year-old Bethesda resident, said she moved to the District just as Tai Shan was born and was at his going away party, so it was fitting she visit the zoo for the newest birthday.

Sporting a black-and-white-striped shirt, pushing a stroller loaded with two panda stuffed animals and her 2-year-old daughter in black-and-white saddle shoes, Ms. Moore looked every inch the panda fan.

“I knew I was going to be here today,” she said. “Obviously they’re adorable, but I think the fact they … really depend on the National Zoo, it’s fascinating.”

The National Zoo has also found panda cubs to be a dependable way to attract more visitors. Smithsonian Institution figures show that in 2005, there were 1.8 million visitors to the zoo, compared with 2.6 million visitors after Tai Shan went on display in 2006.

The bump in visitors wasn’t limited to the zoo. Numbers from Destination DC — formerly the Washington, D.C. Convention & Tourism Corporation — indicate that in 2006 an additional 1.4 million visitors came to the District and spent $193 million. The dollar amount attributable to visits to the panda enclosure is unknown, a spokeswoman said.

Don Moore, associate director of animal care sciences at the zoo, credited the panda’s unique physical appearance to its popularity with zoo patrons.

“It’s one of the cutest babies,” he said. “It’s as big as a butter stick, then it becomes a fuzz ball. It’s black-and-white markings are intriguing to everybody. It always looks like a child. It’s the quintessential teddy bear.”