- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Mei Xiang, the oldest giant panda in the U.S. to successfully give birth, is proving to be a devoted mother, cradling her cub to keep it warm since the newborn cannot regulate its body temperature, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo said this week.

On Tuesday, the zoo’s panda cams showed the 22-year-old Mei Xiang curled up in her den, lying on a bed of shredded bamboo and cradling her cub between her forearms.

The zoo staff on Tuesday said Mei Xiang placed the cub on the floor den briefly and that they expect to see the giant panda “test” the cub’s tolerance for resting on the floor over the next several days. The day before, the zoo said it was going to keep an eye out for the cub’s black markings, which should appear a week after its birth. Mei Xiang (pronounced “may ZHONG”) gave birth around 6:30 p.m. Friday after almost four hours of labor.

Zookeepers and the public had watched Mei Xiang closely that day on the panda cams. Thousands tuned in, hoping to catch a glimpse of the butter-stick-sized cub, occasionally causing the panda cams to crash.

While many viewers expressed excitement over the birth, several questioned why the giant panda mother and her newborn were crammed into such a small space. The zoo explained that bears in the wild, including giant pandas, give birth in small dens, an environment the zoo tried to build for Mei Xiang.

“In China’s Wolong Reserve, pandas make their dens in large hollow conifer trees, with a diameter of about 3 feet. Where there aren’t any trees, pandas den in caves with a little bedding of twigs,” the zoo says on its website.

Zoo staffers give Mei Xiang bamboo, which she shreds and uses as bedding, and note that she always has access to her larger enclosures.

However, Mei Xiang will spend most of her time in the den with her cub for the first few months. Giant pandas will stay cooped up in small dens for the cub’s first 100 days.

Zookeepers expect to be able to grab the cub soon for a health check, which would include weighing and measuring it, assessing hydration, listening for a heartbeat and collecting urine samples.

Following tradition, the cub will be named during a ceremony 100 days after its birth, at the end of November. The zoo staff won’t be able to determine the sex of the cub until later since they have to perform a genetic test to take a peek at its chromosomes.

Mei Xiang previously gave birth to three surviving cubs: Tai Shan (pronounced “tie SHON”) on July 9, 2005; Bao Bao (pronounced “BOW BOW”) on Aug. 23, 2013; and Bei Bei (pronounced “BAY BAY”) on Aug. 22, 2015.

Zookeepers have artificially inseminated Mei Xiang with semen from 23-year-old giant panda Tian Tian since the bears have been unable to breed naturally. However, this time, the staff inseminated Mei Xiang with frozen sperm instead of collecting fresh semen from Tian Tian due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mei Xiang’s newborn will not meet its siblings and might not interact with its father. In the wild, giant pandas are solitary and separate from their mothers around the age of 18 months. Male pandas do not help raise their cubs, and they might never encounter each other in the wild.

All of Mei Xiang’s cubs were moved to China when they were 4 years old as part of a cooperative breeding agreement with a wildlife conservation organization. The agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association expires in December. Zoo staffers currently are discussing the terms of their next agreement with the association.

The China Wildlife Conservation Association could not be reached for comment.

The pandas sent to China enter breeding facilities, zoo director Steve Monfort told The Washington Times. The country also runs a program to reintroduce giant pandas to the wild.

“Hopefully, this cub when it goes to China and reproduces, maybe its offspring will just be able to be put back into the wild and help to grow the population out there,” said Laurie Thompson, assistant curator of giant pandas at the National Zoo. “But it’s an amazing chance right now to learn about older mothers and how they take care of their cubs and how that differs from younger mothers.”

Nine giant pandas currently reside in the U.S. at facilities in the District, Atlanta and Memphis, Tennessee, said Brandie Smith, the zoo’s deputy director and a former panda curator.

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