- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Whether it’s for their teddy-bear appearance, their unique color pattern or their lazy lifestyle, giant pandas for decades in the United States have enjoyed adoration unlike any other in the animal kingdom.

And with just four U.S. zoos housing the endangered mammals native to China, officials around the country say they are all too familiar with the “panda-monium” the District is experiencing after the recent birth of a cub at the National Zoo.

“It’s not unique to D.C., I can tell you that,” said Laura Doty, spokeswoman for the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee. “People around the world love pandas. It’s always exciting, whether you’re having a baby or introducing pandas to the city and surrounding areas for the first time.”

All pandas on display in the United States are on loan from the Chinese government. Ms. Doty said the process for a zoo to secure a panda is competitive and based in part on demonstrating research that can help the animals in the wild and in captivity.

The Memphis Zoo has two adult giant pandas, and while they have yet to produce a new cub, a testing method developed by the zoo’s researchers helped accurately predict when the National Zoo’s giant panda would give birth.

On Aug. 23, giant panda Mei Xiang delivered her squawking newborn — about eight years after the birth of her only cub to survive to adulthood. Zoo officials are describing the latest cub as “strong” and “active” and saying its black and white fur is beginning to grow in.

The birth comes a month after the Fulton County Zoo in Atlanta welcomed twin panda cubs in July, marking its fourth and fifth cubs in seven years.

Rebecca Snyder, curator of mammals at the Atlanta zoo, said things have settled down a bit since the cubs’ birth, but she expects interest to pick up again in mid-October when the cubs are introduced to the public.

Ms. Snyder said the zoo’s panda program began in 1999, and while the first cub’s birth generated enormous interest, with the second and third cubs, “I don’t think there was as much excitement.”

“I think if we had just had a single cub, there would be not quite as much excitement,” she said. “Everyone is excited about twins.”

Though it has been a year since the San Diego Zoo welcomed its most recent addition to its giant panda program, zoo spokeswoman Christina Simmons said panda lovers still monitor the zoo’s cameras online 24 hours a day.

“There are people who call at 2 a.m. to say they see something or have a question,” she said. “They get very excited, they get very worried.”

Ms. Simmons said even the zoo’s first cub, born in 1999, is still popular.

“She was a star,” Ms. Simmons said of Hua Mei, who was the first giant panda to be born in the Western Hemisphere since 1990. “She made People magazine, and San Diego’s most-watched person. She still is, even though she went back to China many years ago.”

The District had a similar experience in 2005, when Mei Xiang gave birth to Tai Shan.

Tai Shan came after officials tried unsuccessfully for decades to mate the District’s first pair of pandas. During 20 years together at the zoo, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling produced five cubs but none of them survived.

Tai Shan, who became wildly popular with zoo visitors, was supposed to be sent to China two years after he was born, but he got an extension and was sent back to China in February 2010.

Smithsonian Institution figures show that in 2005, 1.8 million people visited the zoo compared with 2.6 million visitors after Tai Shan went on display in 2006.

National Zoo officials anticipate swelling crowds when the latest cub, whose gender has yet to be announced, makes its public debut in a few months. The zoo also has two newborn Sumatran tiger cubs and an adult elephant introduced this summer.

“Any time we have new animals or a major new exhibit, we see an increase in attendance,” zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said.

The new panda was supposed to be a twin, but the day after its birth Mei Xiang delivered a stillborn cub. Panda keepers have tried several times to examine the cub after its first checkup two days after it was born, but Mei Xiang has prevented them from reaching the cub, an action they credit as a sign of good parenting.

Ms. Baker-Masson said the giant panda keepers are thrilled at the zoo’s newest addition and the way in which Mei Xiang is nurturing the newborn, but “what happened last September is not lost on them.”

Mei Xiang also gave birth last year, and veterinarians chose to monitor mother and baby via video cameras in her den rather than examine the cub firsthand. Six days after the cub was born, it died from what zoo officials later determined to be underdeveloped lungs and liver damage.

“The fact that we lost a cub last September has made the panda team more anxious,” Ms. Baker-Masson said. “We’re all new parents.”

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