Rare panda cub woos visitors to National Zoo

Tai Shan, the four-month-old panda cub at the National Zoo in Washington D.C., has become a national favorite with fans across the nation scrambling for tickets to see him.

“Its amazing to me personally, the volume of enthusiasm and interest the cub is receiving from the public,” said National Zoo spokesman John Gibbons. Gibbons said the cub has also generated interest from people around the globe who send emails asking about Tai Shan.

Why is Tai Shan so popular?

“I can tell you first hand that he really is just as cute as you think he is,” Gibbons said. “He really is the celebrity at the zoo right now.”

Tai Shan put on a show for the media last week, playing on the rocks in his exhibit and creating photo opportunities for publications across the nation. The cub now weighs 21 pounds and is becoming more active and independent, Gibbons said.

But aside from being a cute little furball, Gibbons said Tai Shan is also a rarity. He is the first panda cub to have come this far at the National Zoo.

Gibbons said that while pandas have been successfully born and raised in captivity, there are major obstacles along the way.

The first obstacle the zoo faced was getting Mei Xiang, his mother, pregnant. According to Gibbons, female pandas have a small window of time when they can get pregnant: only one day a year.

The scientists at the zoo had to estimate when this day was by examining Mei Xiang’s urine. Once they thought they had the day nailed down they brought in a male panda that was sexually “inexperienced” according to Gibbons.

Gibbons chuckled that the male experienced difficulties with the logistics of mating with Mei Xiang.

Since the scientists had only 24 hours to get the job done, they turned to artificial insemination, Gibbons said. After one try, the scientists crossed their fingers that the procedure had worked.

The second obstacle for the zoo was a successful pregnancy for Mei Xiang, one of the few panda’s in the world who is trained to be awake during an ultrasound.

Gibbons said images from ultrasounds are especially difficult to read when looking at a panda fetus, so zoo officials were excited when the little panda cub was born on July 9 of this year.

After the successful birth, the zoo faced the final obstacle of Tai Shan’s post-birth development.

Gibbons said newborn pandas are far less developed than many other mammals, so care after the birth is extremely important.

Mei Xiang was a first-time mother, so the zoo was concerned about how she would adjust to her new role.

“Fortunately, Mei Xiang was a textbook mother and did everything she was supposed to do,” Gibbons said.

Within five minutes after giving birth, Mei Xiang was nursing Tai Shan.

“We are also very fortunate that Tai Shan was a textbook cub and did everything he was supposed to do.”

Tai Shan will make his fist public appearance Dec. 8, and it is already a sold-out performance. His visitors will go through his exhibit in groups for 10 minute intervals.

“We want to accommodate as many people as possible, while adhering to his and his mom’s comfort zones.” Gibbons said.

The National Zoo hopes that Tai Shan will react well to the visitors so that more people will be able to see him in the next several months.

“Every day since he was born he has thrilled us with how well he is doing,” Gibbons said.

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