- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 7, 2007

Put away those panda-patterned baby shower items: No giant panda births are expected at the National Zoo in the near future.

Word that female giant panda Mei Xiang is not pregnant, contrary to what zoo officials suspected, came as a disappointment yesterday to panda fanciers packed into the zoo’s giant panda exhibit along the Asia Trail.

“That would have been very exciting,” said Sharon Parish, 33, of Stafford, Va.

Mrs. Parish first saw cuddly cub Tai Shan, who turns 2 on Monday, shortly after he made his public debut in December 2005.

Crofton residents Sue and Andy Hait had been unable to catch a glimpse of the cub until yesterday because of the high demand.

“I would have loved it if the mom was pregnant,” said Mrs. Hait, 45, as she and other delighted onlookers watched Tai Shan munch bamboo.

The soon-to-be birthday boy became the zoo’s biggest attraction after his birth on July 9, 2005. Since then, he has grown from the size of a stick of butter to about 125 pounds.

Tai Shan, who was conceived when Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated with semen taken from resident male panda Tian Tian, is the first cub born at the zoo to survive more than a brief time.

More than 2 million visitors have flocked to the zoo to catch a glimpse of the cub, and another 1 million per month watch him on the zoo’s Web site.

Zoo officials were hoping to repeat the panda-monium with another cub. Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated in April with semen taken from Gao Gao, a giant panda at the San Diego Zoo, and zoo officials began a pregnancy watch last month after detecting the female panda’s elevated levels of progesterone, a hormone associated with pregnancy.

There is no test that can positively confirm a panda pregnancy.

Mei Xiang’s hormone levels declined last week, which signaled a potential birth. Zoo officials determined it was a false pregnancy after conducting an ultrasound examination and finding no evidence of a fetus.

“I think people are really upset,” said 13-year-old Lily Tookey, a Coral Springs, Fla., resident who was visiting the zoo with an area summer camp. “They should make a test for pandas to see if they’re pregnant.”

“It would have been nice to have another panda,” chimed in 14-year-old Jenny Heyside from Cleveland, who also was visiting the zoo with the camp.

Some zoo visitors hadn’t heard the news, and were happily snapping away photograph after photograph of the cub and his parents, each kept in separate enclosures.

Under the terms of an agreement between the zoo and Chinese officials, Tai Shan originally was scheduled to be sent to China at age 2. His parents are scheduled to head back to their home country in 2010.

Officials with the National Zoo and the Chinese Embassy announced in April that Tai Shan will stay at the zoo at least into 2009.

For George Walter, 10, and his 8-year-old sister, Sarah, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian were equally as interesting as their popular cub.

“They’re just as excited to see grown pandas,” the siblings’ grandmother Jill Thurman said.

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