- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2005

Veterinarians at the National Zoo — antsy while waiting for the stork to visit their giant pandas — resorted yesterday morning to a new artificial-insemination technique.

Zoo staffers wanted female Mei Xian and male Tian Tian to conceive naturally, but intervened, in part, because of Tian Tian’s awkwardness.

“One of his habits — maybe due to a little bit of inexperience — is that while attempting to mount her, he’d climb on top of her, and she’d flatten under his weight,” zoo spokesman John Gibbons said.

The pandas were sporadically placed together over a 18- to 20-hour period beginning Thursday morning.

Unlike past years when the pandas were on display during mating season, the exhibit was closed this time while the staff observed their activity.

The exhibit should reopen today.

“From a health standpoint, they’re absolutely fine,” Mr. Gibbons said.

As Mei Xian’s fertility cycle came to a close, the veterinarians decided to use a fiber-optic scope to place Tian Tian’s semen directly into her reproductive tract.

“It’s a brief window of opportunity, about 24 to 48 hours and only once a year,” Mr. Gibbons said. “So at about 5 a.m., we anesthetized the pandas and [inseminated] Mei Xiang.”

Mr. Gibbons said veterinarians will have difficulty determining whether Me Xiang is pregnant because giant pandas experience a pseudopregnancy, which occurs when they ovulate but don’t conceive.

“To just go by her behavior, you wouldn’t know if she was pregnant, because she acts the same as she would if she actually was,” Mr. Gibbons said. “And a panda cub is only about the size of a stick of butter when born, so she doesn’t get a swollen belly or gain a lot of weight.

“But one of the unique things about Mei Xiang is that we can do ultrasounds to monitor her progress.”

The panda’s pregnancy period is three to six months, Mr. Gibbons said.

Mei Xiang, 6, and Tian Tian, 7, are the zoo’s second pair of giant pandas. They went on exhibit in December 2000 and are on a 10-year loan from the China Wildlife Conservation Association.

The zoo said any cub likely would be sent to China, once it is old enough, so it could become part of the country’s breeding population.

The last time the zoo had a pregnant panda was 1989. Its previous pandas — Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing — successfully bred four times and produced five cubs, but none lived longer than a few days.

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