September 17, 2012
This morning Washington, D.C. woke up to joyful news. For the first time in seven years, there is a new little cub hanging out with her mother, the Giant Panda Mei Xiang. Visitors flocked to the Zoo when baby Tai Shan was born. Because of an agreement with Chinese officials, all giant pandas born at the Zoo have to be returned for breeding. The Smithsonian wished Tai Shan a heartfelt farewell with a charming video.
The Zoo reports the new cub was born at 10:46 p.m., Sunday, September 16.
“Mei Xiang is behaving exactly the same way she did when Tai Shan was born,” says chief veterinarian Suzan Murray. “She is cradling her cub closely, and she looks so tired, but every time she tries to lay down, the cub squawks and she sits right up and cradles the cub more closely. She is the poster child for a perfect panda mom.”
For now, the staff will have to monitor the giant panda from afar, giving the mother time to bond with the cub. One of the caretakers, Juan Rodriguez says the team is now surveying the pair 24-7; “We’re rotating amongst the keepers, overnight shifts.”
The cub was first discovered when one of Rodriguez’ colleagues just happened to turn on the panda cam at home and noticed some funny noises, indicating Mei Xiang might have some company.
“They’re very vocal when they’re young,” explains Rodriguez. The team has largely been observing the pair of pandas through audio cues. “We really havent gotten the chance to get a good visual yet, just a few glimpses here and there, but we have been hearing the baby.”
According to Chinese tradition, says Rodriguez, the cub won’t be named until 100 days after the birth, just in time for holiday season. Name suggestions have already come rolling into Smithsonian magazine’s twitter feed, including Shu Yun, which means gentle cloud and Country Crock, a riff on older brother Tai Shan’s nickname Butterstick.
Like Tai Shan, the new cub will eventually have to go to China for further breeding. Though that transfer usually occurs when the panda is around two years old and would be independent in the wild, Tai Shan was granted a two-year extension.
After seven years and five failed pregnancies, the giant panda population (only around 1,600 in the wild) can claim another victory.
“Everyone’s very, very excited,” says Rodriguez. “Just statistically, the numbers were very, very low, so this is a very pleasant surprise. We’re ready to take on the responsibility now.”
Rodriguez explains, “The first month is one of the most crucial in terms of the survival of the cub,” but, he says, the team has no reason to worry. “She’s a very good mom.”
Rodriguez says the entire effort has been immense. “It’s a lot of work from different departments working together to help an endagnered species, the fact that you have the rebirth team, the veterinary staff, the animal care staff and even the public relations staff, it’s just so intricate and everyone is working together as a team and that team effort is what brought about the whole process.”
“Now we’re just very eager to see this cub develop and partake in the betterment of the species,” says Rodriguez.
For now, the public can get updates on the cub from the camera feed online. Staff expects the new baby will be on view in four to five months.
Leah Binkovitz contributed reporting to this article.
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