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Newborn Baby Panda

July 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Visitors have been flocking to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. since the weekend when it was announced that the zoo’s newest resident had arrived. The giant panda, Mei Xiang, gave birth to a newborn baby panda in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Zoo officials will cautiously monitoring the mother and offspring. It’s so fragile they haven’t even been able to get close enough to determine the gender yet. It’s estimated that the baby is about the size and weight of a stick of butter, approximately, three-to-five ounces.

The road to parenthood was not an easy one for Mei Xiang. Three previous attempts at mating and artificial insemination were failures. This time an artificial insemination in March was a success.

According to Chinese tradition, the cub will not be named until it’s 100 days old. And because Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, her mate, are from China and under the terms of a previous agreement, they and the new panda will return to China in about two years. This afternoon, I spoke with Suzan Murray, chief veterinarian at the National Zoo.

SUZAN MURRAY: I look at panda pregnancy as hurdle after hurdle, a series of giant hurdles. It’s the initial timing of the pregnancy to give them a time to do it naturally and if they don’t do it naturally to make sure you’re still giving yourself time to help them along as we did with artificial insemination.

A then monitoring her throughout the pregnancy to make sure we’re providing everything that she needs, and then after she gives birth making sure she’s got time to bond with the baby and that she does obviously take care of it. So it’s hurdle after hurdle, but Mei Xiang seems to be clearing each hurdle very well, so we’re so excited about that.

RAY SUAREZ: Do pandas have this problem breeding just in captivity or is this a problem for them in the wild too?

SUZAN MURRAY: It’s a difficulty in the wild as well as in captivity. That’s one of the reasons that they’re endangered. They don’t reproduce easily. And so that’s one of the reasons that they are endangered.

RAY SUAREZ: Are the babies also born particularly fragile, particularly helpless, compared to the young of other animals?

SUZAN MURRAY: Yes. That’s exactly so and also very small. So we have for a female panda. She’s 240 pounds. She gives birth to something that’s four ounces that can’t really move. It has no fur on it. And it’s very small, so it does need a lot of help to survive.

RAY SUAREZ: So you do have to clear some more hurdles, so to speak, until you’re ready to say we have a healthy, young panda here.

SUZAN MURRAY: Exactly. Someone asked earlier today, when can you exhale? We’re not going to be exhaling for a while. At the same time, with every 24-hour period that the Mei Xiang lives through and her baby lives through, we’re thrilled.

RAY SUAREZ: Walk us through the process in getting Mei Xiang pregnant. What were the steps you had to take?

SUZAN MURRAY: Getting Mei Xiang pregnant was another major hurdle. What we wanted to do was give them a chance to breed naturally. So in China the pandas, male and female, are kept separately and they’re only put together during the particular window where they think they can conceive. So we did that here as well.

We gave them 12 hours together, and they tried but weren’t quite able to stick the landing so to speak. And so we decided after the 12-hour mark to help them along. That involved having to anesthetize both the mom and the dad, dad first to collect the sample and then wake him up, anesthetize the mom and actually do the AI procedure. So that was a huge hurdle to make sure we got the timing right.

It turns out that we were dead on, on the timing. Then monitoring her throughout her pregnancy, luckily Mei Xiang really, really liked ultrasounds; she went into her training chute and she would lay down for her ultrasound. So we got a lot of exams along the way. So we’ll be getting a lot of knowledge from that, and then up to the birth just a few days ago. During the last week she didn’t want much to do with us though, so that was a difficult time, you know, to monitor her closely.

RAY SUAREZ: Now you say gaining knowledge. Are there things that you’ll learn with a successful delivery that you can hopefully apply to future to make these births not quite so rare?

SUZAN MURRAY: Yes. Absolutely. And even a lot of information we gain from the ultrasound we’ll really be learning more from it in retrospect. Pandas can either go through a period of pseudo pregnancy or pregnancy. Their behavior is the same. The hormonal changes are the same. But you don’t really know if she’s pregnant until the baby is born. We can now take that information, review all of our ultrasounds and say, more definitively, well this is evidence of a pregnancy versus a pseudo pregnancy.

So we will be continuing to apply the information we learned from the pre-birth period to future pregnancies and then we’ve got 24-hour tape rolling, 24-hour volunteers, and they record behaviors every minute. They’ve got a little buzzer that goes off so every minute around the clock all of that information will be analyzed to help us determine if future babies are developing normally.

RAY SUAREZ: Will you have Mei Xiang and her mate long enough to have another opportunity for a birth?

SUZAN MURRAY: Yes. The current plan is to have this breeding pair for several more years and we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but if everything goes well we’ll be hoping for another baby as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Doctor, thanks a lot.

SUZAN MURRAY: Thank you so much for coming.