- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Tai Shan, aka “Butterstick” or “The Little Monster,” knows how to put on a show. On a recent brisk Saturday afternoon the National Zoo’s 8-month-old giant panda cub, done with bouncing around his enclosure at the Fujifilm Giant Panda Habitat, made for his favorite tree — where he pawed at the twigs, lurched up to a branch, flipped himself upside down and stayed that way for minutes.

The crowd loved it. “The Force is with you, Tai Shan,” a group of twentysomethings from Northern Virginia yelled in unison.

No question about it: Since his birth on July 9 last year, the roly-poly cub has become the zoo’s megastar. More than that, his arrival gave the zoo a jolt of energy that has persisted as the staff studies his growth and the maternal qualities of his mother, Mei Xiang — and even the bland indifference of his father, Tian Tian, who lolls on his back in a separate enclosure.

“Tai Shan presents new challenges every day,” says Lisa Stevens, assistant curator in the Department of Animal Programs at the zoo.

“He’s become very assertive and independent when we examine him or weigh and measure him. He tugs and resists a lot more than when he was small. And he’s found his very own tree, and often it gets very difficult to get him down from that tree at night.”

Bundles of joy

But the charismatic Tai Shan is not the only new kid on the block. Since the arrival of three Sumatran tiger cubs in May 2004, the zoo has seen multiple births: four cheetah cubs in November 2004, a second cheetah litter of five last April, a sloth bear cub this year on Jan. 9, a porcupette, or baby prehensile-tailed porcupine (the second such to be born at the zoo within a year) on Feb. 8, and a North Island brown kiwi on Feb. 13.

Those are just some of the better-known arrivals. Let’s not forget the new Guam Micronesian Kingfisher and the six Guam rail chicks, both species nearly wiped out by the introduction of the brown tree snake to Guam in the 1950s.

Add to that two scarlet ibises, seven flamingos, two rock cavies (a variety of squirrel native to Brazil) and two acouchis (another species of South American rodent).

And of course the Everglades rat snakes and the Panamanian golden frogs, all new within the past year.

Births at the zoo are occasions of excitement, drama and renewal. Babies are big with visitors. And the births have been a balm to the National Zoo, which had gone through a period of major turbulence, change and controversy. At the end of 2004, after a series of animal deaths at the zoo, Director Lucy Spelman resigned, to be replaced by John Berry last October.

But most importantly, successful breeding and the survival of the babies are critical to every zoo as they fight to save endangered species.

Among the better-known newcomers, the tiger, the panda, the cheetah and the kiwi are all on the endangered list. Their births mean more small victories for a project known as the Species Survival Plan, a program begun in 1981 under the auspices of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. The SSPs, in essence a battle against extinction, allow zoo and aquarium professionals to organize breeding programs that will result in strong, viable genetic lines, by sharing animals, research and information.

That’s why the young tigers went off to Denver in January — to the Downtown Aquarium there — and the cheetahs will eventually go elsewhere in the future. Even Tai Shan will be returned to China’s giant panda preserve in Wolong when he’s 3.

Big cats, little cats

For now the little panda is the marquee attraction, but to zoogoing fans of feline sleekness and charisma, both sets of cheetah cubs remain a big draw.

“They’re just incredible,” says animal keeper Craig Saffoe, who holds a degree in animal science from North Carolina State and has worked at the zoo since 1994.

“They’re beautiful, they’re incredibly athletic, they’re especially special because they’re endangered, they’re smart, agile. They’re hard-wired for incredible acceleration and speed.”

The cheetahs, who can reach speeds of 65 mph within seconds, get their exercise by chasing a lure, or a flag attached to a cord that races around the yard.

“I’ve always wanted to be around big cats and I got my wish, and then some,” Mr. Saffoe says.

Tumai, Swahili for “hope,” is the mother of the first litter — Askari and Damara, two males, and Imara and Hatima, two females.

Zazi, whose name means “fruitful” in Swahili, produced five cubs — two males, Gahiji and Chaka, and three females, Arara, Makeda, and Rhaxma. Ume, the zoo’s lone male adult cheetah, fathered this litter.

One day recently, Tumai and her cubs lolled sleepily in the first enclosure at the Cheetah Conservation Station while Zazi’s cubs wrestled, ran, rolled and played with their mother. They stretched, they pawed, and they made bird-like noises.

“That means they’re annoyed,” Mr. Saffoe says. “They make all kinds of sounds: barks, this trilling sound, purring.”

All quills

The prehensile-tailed porcupine doesn’t have the star power attached to the panda, or the lethal magnetism of the cheetahs, nor is it endangered.

The new baby, determined to be a male by DNA testing of his quills (as was his sister), has a more modest mien, although when small mammal curator Dell Guglielmo brought him out, he didn’t appear to lack for cuteness with his round nose and quizzical eyes looking out from a head full of quills.

“You get attached to these guys pretty quickly,” Ms. Guglielmo says. “They’re very small, they sleep a lot in the daytime. The porcupines are nocturnal, so they do almost all of their moving around at night. Their quills are soft at first, but they harden very quickly. That’s why we wear gloves. His mom and dad are in there now and he spends a lot of time on that tree branch.”

A little boy and his father got a chance to see the porcupine baby up close.

“Wow, dad, that’s a baby,” the boy said, just as if he’d seen a panda cub.

Saving the kiwi

The flightless kiwi is the national bird of New Zealand, and the hatching of the zoo’s North Island brown kiwi, native to that country’s north island, was a rare occasion for a bird that, like the cheetah and the panda, is endangered.

The chick hatched on Feb. 13, after 64 days of incubation, and was only the second kiwi born at the zoo. The first, hatched in 1975 and still here at the zoo, was the first to be born outside New Zealand.

The new kiwi weighed almost 10 ounces at birth and came complete with long, thin beak, a little bedraggled but ready to go. It has to: that’s the last time mom or dad will pay any attention to it.

“You know what I absolutely love about the kiwi?” asks keeper Kathy Brader. “It completely and absolutely knows what it is, what it’s supposed to do, how to behave and feed from the moment it’s born. It has a complete sense of itself, which is more than most people ever achieve.”

The little bird is bright eyed and ever on the lookout for food. Yet it seems nonplussed by the presence of humans. It can’t be viewed by the public yet, and remains in a specially designed brooder box.

“In New Zealand, they used to be lords of their domain — until humans came. Both the Maori and later Westerners introduced predators to the island, dogs and cats who killed the kiwi, especially the young, who were not wired to protect themselves,” Ms. Breeder says.

“I love all of the birds here, of course,” she says. “I couldn’t think of doing anything else. You’d have to blast me out of here before I’d leave.”

The star

That sentiment is probably shared by all the scientists, keepers, curators and biologists who work with the pandas.

If the arrival of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian in 2000 was a bombshell at the National Zoo, the birth of the cub, after Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated, was an earthquake.

Dubbed Tai Shan or “Peaceful Mountain” in a naming contest that drew more than 202,000 votes, the little one’s every move, yip, weight gain, activity, food intake and markings were closely followed. At a press rollout in November, Tai Shan effortlessly reduced a horde of hardened media types from all over the world to mush.

Ms. Stevens, the assistant curator who has been the giant panda spokesperson at the zoo for more than 18 years, remembers the zoo’s first pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, who failed to produce viable offspring — and sees how different things are today.

“This has been an incredible opportunity for everyone,” she says. “Every day we learn something new about pandas from Tai Shan, from his mother, in terms of how she raises him, how he responds, about food intake, growth, marking.

“What’s amazing is that there’s been remarkable little research done in the field, studying panda behavior in the wild, and now we can share information with the Chinese and with other zoos.”

On Saturday Tai Shan, taking his time, righted himself on the tree. The crowd cheered as if he’d hit a shot at the buzzer. That’s March madness at the zoo, every day.

Getting to know the new arrivals

Tai Shan fans, take notice: Your boy isn’t the only new kid on the block. The National Zoo is now home to a passel of young ‘uns, including cheetahs, a sloth bear, a porcupette and a tiny kiwi. Here are some vital statistics on the new arrivals and a brief guide to the best ways to see them.

The National Zoo is open every day. Grounds are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and, beginning Sunday, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Buildings are open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. now and until 6 p.m. beginning Sunday. For more information see nationalzoo.si.edu or fonz.org. For Web cams, see nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/WebCams.

Giant panda

Name: Tai Shan

Date of birth: July 9, 2005

Mother: Mei Xiang

Native habitat: Central China

Endangered? Yes. One of the most critically endangered species in the world. Only about 1,600 remain in the wild.

Zoo home: Fujifilm Giant Panda Habitat

Visiting: Free tickets are required to see pandas between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. through April. For information on e-tickets, go to the National Zoo Web site. Some same-day tickets are available at the zoo.

Web cam: Yes

Cheetahs

Names: Askari and Damara (males), Imara and Hatima (females)

Mother: Tumai

Date of birth: Nov. 23, 2004.

Names: Gahiji and Chaka (males), Arara, Makeda and Rhaxma (females)

Mother: Zazi

Date of birth: April 14, 2005

Native habitat: Primarily sub-Saharan Africa

Endangered? Yes. An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 cheetahs survive in the wild.

Zoo home: Cheetah Conservation Station

Visiting: No tickets required. Zoo hours.

Web cam: Yes

Prehensile-tailed porcupine

Name: Male will be named after a public naming contest

Date of birth: Feb. 8, 2006

Native habitat: South America

Endangered? No

Zoo home: Small Mammal House

Visiting: No tickets required. Small Mammal House opens at 10 a.m.

Web cam: No

North Island brown kiwi

Name: To be named once sex is determined

Date of birth: Feb. 13, 2006

Native habitat: New Zealand

Endangered? Protected in New Zealand but numbers are dropping at the rate of 5.8 percent per year. Current number is 28,000 in the wild.

Zoo home: Bird House

Visiting: Not on exhibit yet

Web cam: Yes

Sloth bear

Name: To be named once sex is determined

Date of birth: Jan. 9, 2006

Mother: Hana

Native habitat: India

Endangered? Considered “vulnerable”

Zoo home: Sloth bear exhibit at Beaver Valley

Visiting: No. Cub has not been examined but is being monitored.

Web cam: No


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