National Zoo Awaits Birth of Pandemic Panda Cub

WASHINGTON (AP) -
The Smithsonian National Zoo’s Giant Panda Mei Ziang sleeps in the indoor habitat at the zoo in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin/File)

Zookeepers at Washington’s National Zoo are on furry black-and-white baby watch after concluding that venerable giant panda matriarch Mei Xiang is expecting and could give birth this week. It’s a welcome bit of good news amid a pandemic that kept the zoo shuttered for months.

“We need this! We totally need this joy,” said zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson. “We are all in desperate need of these feel-goods.”

The announcement has already touched off a fresh round of panda-mania for one of the zoo’s feature attractions. Viewership on the zoo’s panda-cam has increased 800%.

The zoo re-opened on a limited basis on July 24, with restrictions in place to keep the crowds down. However, all indoor exhibits, including the extremely popular panda house, have remained closed. Visitors can still view the outdoor panda enclosure, but Mei has mostly been staying indoors, creating a nest out of branches. She can still be viewed on the panda cam.

A potential complication is the age of the mother. Mei, at 22, would be the oldest giant panda to successfully give birth in the United States. The oldest in the world gave birth in China at age 23.

“She is an older bear,” Baker-Masson said. “But she has been a great mother in the past.”

Mei Xiang has successfully given birth to three cubs: Tai Shan, Bao Bao and Bei Bei. All were transported to China at age 4, under terms of the zoo’s agreement with the Chinese government.