October 17, 2013
For 16 days, the doors to the Smithsonian museums and National Zoo were closed to the public—and with them, the animal cameras that provided a video stream of the Zoo animal’s activities for curious viewers. As news of the animal cameras demise went viral, bereaved watchers took to the internet to express their frustrations, with universal lamentions. “This just got REAL,” tweeted the Daily Beast, while Ed Henry, Fox News’ White House correspondent, proclaimed that the panda cam shutdown “is where we draw the line.” Time even created its own panda cam to keep panda enthusiast calm while waiting out the shutdown.
Good news for panda enthusiasts. Beginning Thursday morning, the Zoo’s technical staff began the process of bringing the cameras back online, beginning with the overwhelmingly popular panda cam. While the Zoo grounds won’t reopen to the public until Friday morning, Zoo lovers can rest assured knowing that their favorite animals are now only a click away.
In the days since the panda cam went dark, the Zoo’s new panda cub has gone through some significant milestones. The most apparent is her size: since her last veterinary appointment on September 26, she’s grown from 3.07 pounds to a whopping 5 pounds. The cub has also begun to open her eyes, opening the right one three days after the panda cam went down, on October 4. Both of the cub’s ears are also fully open, and she now responds to sounds she hears inside the panda house.
Mei Xiang, the cub’s mother, has also been active while the panda cam has been down. Mei is leaving the cub for longer periods of time, to eat and venture outside. Her appetite has increased, as keepers note that she is now eating all of the leaf-eater biscuits and produce she is offered, as well as 60 percent of her bamboo. On October 12, Mei even chose to participate in a training session with keepers in the outdoor area. While mom is away, the cub keeps herself busy by scooting around the indoor area, though keepers note that the cub doesn’t manage to get very far—yet. Keepers estimate that by the time the cub is four months old, she will be strong enough to walk on her own. For now, she can push herself up on her front two legs, or right herself if she is stuck on her back.
Anxious panda cam viewers should note that a large amount of traffic when the cams first return could overwhelm the stream, causing viewing problems. If this happens to you, don’t panic—simply take a deep breath and refresh the page, which you’ll need to do if you plan on watching the panda cam for more than 15 minutes anyway.
August 28, 2013
Last Friday evening, the world watched in wonder and anticipation as the giant panda Mei Xiang gave birth to a healthy panda cub at the National Zoo. As zoo keepers work to monitor the health of mother and cub, we were able to speak with panda keeper Juan Rodriguez about looking after the pandas, a recent trip to the Panda Base in Bifengxia, China and what the birth of the new cub means for a continued collaboration between the two facilities.
I understand that Mei was very protective of her cub yesterday, and that she didn’t want to surrender her for any check-ups.
She was doing what a mom should be doing; she’s being very protective of her cub. Every once in a while, she’s re-adjusting to make sure the cub was in a good spot to be able to nurse, and slightly moving away from us in the process. We had to be very careful, and finally, since so much time was going by and we didn’t want to push the envelope, we decided to leave her alone to be able to nurse her cub in a nice quiet spot.
If she continues to be unwilling to surrender the cub for checkups, what will you do?
Right now, we’re just going to stay back and let her do her thing, and keep an eye on the cameras and listen in. We’re also going to have the opportunity to offer her a few different food choices in the next few days, so that will give us a better idea. Basically, we’re just playing it by ear on a daily basis.
Tell me about your recent trip to China.
That was an amazing learning experience on all levels. My colleague Marty Dearie and I had the opportunity to work with our panda colleagues at Bifengxia, at the Panda Base in Ya’an, China. They are the group that actually has loaned us our current giant pandas Tian Tian and Mei Xiang. The folks out there have years and years of knowledge working with pandas both in captivity and in their wild habitat. First and foremost, we had an opportunity to see the facility first hand. It’s located high up in the mountains of Ya’an, in a very forested area, so even though they are in a captive setting they do have a lot of natural environment around them. We got a chance to work with our Chinese colleagues who have worked with giant pandas in captivity for many years. We also saw a total of three cub births, one of which was a set of twins. We also had a chance to see how the nursery staff cares for the neonatal cubs, ranging from birth to two weeks of age, and some other cubs who were a month or two months old. We also had a chance to see one cub that was almost a year old, and a set of twins a little older than a year. There were a lot of age groups, pandas at different life stages, and seeing it all at once was an invaluable learning experience.
In addition to that, we had three different places where we worked. One was a birthing station, where there were several females—some that were pregnant, some that had already given birth. [Another] location had been specifically set aside—from what we understand, for the first time ever—for six females that were completely isolated from the public. It’s kind of a prelude to a wildlife setting. They are enclosed, but they have outdoor dens, so they could give birth outdoors and potentially raise their cub outdoors. In fact, there were two of them that had already given birth and were raising their cubs outdoors [rather than in] an indoor enclosure. So that’s going to give them a better feeling for whether or not, when the cubs get older, if they’re going to be different behaviorally, or in terms of their health; it’s real on-the-ground work that they’re doing with the giant pandas. The last place we would see is the nursery, to see how they nursed and cared for the neonatal and one-month-plus old cubs. We actually got a chance to get hands-on, being able to feed and or stimulate the cubs to help them defecate. At that age, they can’t defecate or urinate on their own, so there are several techniques that they showed us to help the baby pandas do that, in order to care for the cubs at that stage of their lives.
I heard you picked up some new techniques for handling the mother and her cub.
Most definitely. The husbandry techniques are slightly different in China, because they do have a different relationship with their pandas: they go into the enclosures with their pandas. So there is no protective contact. For us, our protocols don’t allow that; there must always be some kind of protection. That being said, we did get a chance to see how the Chinese animal caretaker staff behaves around the pandas while they are in such close proximity.
Have you heard from your Chinese colleagues on the birth of the new panda? What do they have to say?
We had a few—through translations—all congratulating us. A few have texted us a sort of congratulatory e-mail in Chinese. They’re certainly all excited for us.
What has been the most exciting part of this process?
Being able to see the fact that she gave birth; we’re all very happy, but we’re all also very guarded in our optimism, because of what happened last year. The analogy that I like to give is that it’s like that moment on a roller coaster, where you’re going up that roller coaster and anticipating going over the hill. It’s sort of like that—you’re girding yourself for going over the hill, so that is kind of where we’re at right now. . . I think that we’ll have a slight sigh of relief maybe a month from now, and then I don’t think anyone will be completely, totally, excited until after a year to two years, in terms of being confident that the cub is going to grow into adulthood.
And what has been the most unsettling?
I wouldn’t consider it unsettling, just more of a concern for Mei Xiang’s well being. During the cub’s first check up, I was one of the staff members that stayed behind with Mei Xiang to see how she was behaving, and also [to] console her while the cub was away. So I think at that stage, it was just a mom who was searching for her cub—. . .“Where’s my cub? I hear it but I don’t see it.”
She was actually scrounging in her nest to see if she had misplaced it somewhere in her nesting material. It’s a good example of how good of a mother she is. She wants to care for her young and always be attentive to it, especially when it’s vocalizing. It was mostly about keeping her calm and collected, and we were able to provide her with some fluids. We had a squirt bottle filled with honey water and would squirt it on her tongue, and she was taking that a few times while the cub was away. I think that helped to distract her for a few seconds, just enough to let her settle down. Of course, since this is a new thing we have done with her at this stage, the return of the cub was a crucial moment. She was very excited to have the cub back and we wanted to make sure we could get the cub back safely into her possession. Anticipating what she was going to do at that point was something that was heavily on our minds. And she did everything perfectly. She picked it up very gently with her mouth and put it back on her chest and presumably the cub started nursing again, so within five minutes, or less, she was calm and collected in her corner nursing her cub.
Why does it matter who the father of the cub is?
It matters on a lot of levels. I think first and foremost, because there’s such a small population of giant pandas. It’s important for genetic diversity. Knowing who the father is will determine the level of related-ness that the cub has to the overall population, which has future effects in determining who this cub, potentially when they reach adulthood, can mate with. That’s the primary level. The secondary level is because we know that the second cub that was born was malformed, it would give us a better idea to know if the fathers were the same, or if one was from one father and one from the other. And, again, keeping in mind I’m not a reproductive physiologist, but I think understanding which type of sperm sample was used—one that was fresh versus one that was frozen—would have an effect on which one was able to survive and be healthy.
Do we know how the cub will be named?
The tradition that our Chinese colleagues [follow] and we do too, is to wait until day 100. And at that point the cub can be named.
Apart from the cub’s birth, what other strategies for panda care did you take up with your Chinese colleagues on your visit?
I picked up a little Chinese, so maybe now I can talk to them a little. I’m sure Tian Tian and Mei Xiang remember a little of it, since they were born in China.
In all seriousness, I think that everything from the nursery and just being able to be prepared, if it came to hand rearing the cub. We now have experience with that. Getting our hands on a cub from a few days old to a few months old, knowing how much pressure and how to hold them properly, those are all important things to know. It’s also important knowing what are some of the cues that Mei Xiang might give us if something is not right with the cub. And also to know certain vocalizations from the cub, to know that the cub is doing well.
I understand you’ve been studying different types of bamboo and their effect on a panda’s welfare.
I can’t say much in too much detail, because I’m not a bamboo specialist. But in China, they have other varieties of bamboo, and though they feed them just about the same as we do, they have different varieties. They are fortunate that their bamboo growing season is about 10 months out of the year, whereas our growing season for bamboo shoots is about two, maximum three months, out of the year. So they have greater access to bamboo shoots than we do. We supplement with other foods, offering apples, pears, sweet potatoes and liquids such as honey water and apple juice.
What was the highlight of your China trip?
I think it was great to be able to meet our colleagues in China. Going over to China helps to reaffirm our commitment with our colleagues there and helps to give us a better understanding of the kind of work they do both in captivity and in the wild. They currently have one male that they have reintroduced into the wild, so ultimately those are the kinds of stories we want to be a part of and hear about. It’s not just reproducing cubs, it’s also about making sure that the species can exist in the wild. This is a very serious goal that we’re both committed to, and working together as one group, that synergy is great.
December 20, 2012
“In various zoos around North America,” says Saffoe, curator for the great cats and bears, “the problem has been since 2005, only two litters have survived so far.” Both of those litters belong to the National Zoo’s bear, Billie Jean. All the others have died after day seven, according to Saffoe, which the Zoo’s cubs marked Wednesday, December 20.
The population also continues to dwindle in the wild, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meaning the successful breeding of the species is an important victory. And because the National Zoo is one of the few zoos that actually monitors its newborn cubs with the use of an infrared camera installed in the otherwise dark den the bears use, Saffoe says his team is perfectly poised to contribute original findings about what’s made its program so successful.
“We’re extremely lucky that we have this bear and that she’s reproducing for us,” says Saffoe, “and that we have the equipment to be able to watch her. I don’t think a lot of viewers quite realize how special what they’re watching is.”
His team has begun looking through the recorded footage that begins on November 30 when Billie Jean first exhibited signs she was nearing labor. Searching for clues as to what makes the environment or the animals so unique, Saffoe says this time around the cameras are even better than for the birth in 2010.
The cubs aren’t out of the woods yet, of course. Estimating that his team won’t be able to access the cubs for another nine weeks, Saffoe says there’s still plenty of unknowns that could go wrong, citing the example of the infant panda who recently died at the Zoo. Barring unforeseen illness, Saffoe says the most realistic dangers are maternal neglect and accidents, including the possibility that the mother could crush the cubs.
In the meantime, he will listen in for vocalizations to be sure all is proceeding normally. Saffoe says, “Everything seems to be going really, really well. We’re very happy with how things sound and look.”
October 11, 2012
On September 23rd, the world said goodbye to the National Zoo’s week-old baby giant panda without knowing its gender, name or cause of death. A necropsy was completed just after the cub was discovered dead, and the Zoo has now released its official report, citing lung and liver damage from oxygen deprivation as the cause of death for the young female.
The report concluded, “Her lungs were poorly developed and likely caused her to have insufficient oxygen, which would be consistent with the changes in the liver.” Mortality rates for giant pandas in captivity in their first year are bleak for both male and female cubs: 26 and 20 percent respectively.
Officials again confirmed that there were no external or internal signs of trauma. In fact, it wasn’t until a caretaker, keeping an eye on the mother and cub from home with the Zoo’s panda cam, heard a distressed sound from mother Mei Xiang that staff was alerted to the crisis. Despite efforts to perform CPR, the cub was unresponsive.
Meanwhile, Mei Xiang has almost returned to her normal behavior and keepers have cleared the bamboo nesting materials from her den.
September 24, 2012
After just six and a half days of life, the National Zoo’s panda cub died suddenly Sunday morning. The death left a list of unknowns for staff and onlookers to sort through. Without a name, and its sex undetermined, the tiny cub was just a blur of squirming limbs and squeaks for much of its life. In a medical examination conducted on Sunday night, veterinarian pathologist John Roberts determined the panda had been nursing properly and was not suffocated (mothers accidentally rolling onto their cubs is not uncommon). Only a few abnormalities appeared and further study is needed to determine their significance.
“The only abnormalities the veterinarians have detected so far were some fluid in her abdomen and a slightly abnormal liver. They don’t know whether either of those things is significant, and they’re still investigating,” the Zoo reports. The staff also learned that the cub was likely female.
The panda cub was to be part of an ongoing effort to understand the breeding and behavior of the endangered species. Its mother, Mei Xiang, was artificially inseminated in April. Officials observed the giant panda for any signs she might be pregnant, and, in August, the Zoo reported she had elevated hormone levels and had begun nesting. The excitement built until Mei Xiang gave birth to the cub on Sunday, September 16, after seven years of failed pregnancies and false hope.
Less than a week later, the saga ended with an alarming honk from Mei Xiang at 9:17 a.m., indicating something had gone terribly wrong. Veterinarians rushed to try to save the baby, but CPR was unsuccessful, according to an official statement. The cub was declared dead at 10:28 a.m.
The first month of life is a critical and perilous time for panda cubs, according to care taker Juan Rodriguez. But after a few days of watching the mother groom, cuddle and care for her infant, chances seemed to be in the baby’s favor.
Now, the team will continue to search for more conclusive results while monitoring Mei until she returns to normal behavior. The staff did report that the mother slept well Sunday night and ate and drank Monday morning. “Watchers did notice her cradling an object,” staff wrote in an official statement Monday morning.
The Zoo added that it is still reeling from the loss of the cub and that, “Every loss is hard but this one is especially devastating.”