WASHINGTON — The National Zoo’s female giant panda gave birth to a cub Sunday night, stunning and delighting zoo officials and sparking a new wave of panda mania seven years after the zoo’s only other cub was born in 2005.
The cub was born at 10:46 p.m. to Mei Xiang, the zoo said, and curator Becky Malinsky happened to be watching the 24-hour-a-day panda camera feed and heard the first squealing of the newborn
“I got a call . . . a little after 10:45" from a senior curator saying “the behavior watcher just saw a birth," said Don Moore, associate director for animal-care sciences. “I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s not April Fools’ yet, so I’m going back to bed. ‘ She said, ‘No, no, really. There’s been a panda. Congratulations.’ “
“I was not believing it," Moore said Monday. “We gave this a very low percentage. We were prepared for another disappointment. . . . We bucked the odds . . . and we’ve got a baby on the ground."
“We’re ecstatic," he said. “She’s being a very, very good mom. . . . Every time the kid cries, she cradles it in a different way. What I’m looking at is really good mothering behavior."
Moore said the panda camera caught the moment of birth. “She kind of breathes funny and then she jerks her body, and then she stands up and kind of looks at something for just seconds . . . and then picks it up."
Officials said they have caught only a glimpse of the cub but can hear its “vocalizations" clearly.
“It’s very loud," said Zoo Director Dennis Kelly. “A high-pitched, very loud squeal. It’s surprisingly loud for a little critter that’s only the size of a butter stick."
Kelly said he has not seen the new cub, but he noted that panda cubs look like naked mole rats and weigh about four ounces.
“This is still a very, very precarious situation," he said. “This particular animal is very, very small, and we’re going to watch it very carefully, and we’re going to let Mom take care of it unless we get some indication that something’s wrong. So we’re likely not to see much of her or the cub for about a week."
At the zoo Monday, some panda fans were overcome with joy.
“I’ve been crying all day," said Holly O’Brien-Yao, 58, of Falls Church, Va., as she stood outside the roped-off panda compound.
Tears of joy? “Of course," she said.
“I’ve been praying for something really wonderful to happen to me, and this does it," she said. “I remember doing it with Tai Shan and how beautiful it was. It makes me feel better. It’s a warm and fuzzy feeling."
The zoo was buzzing with news, as workers there high-fived each other outside the compound, which had a sign saying the area was closed. It will remain so for several weeks, and the cub will probably not make a public debut for several months, zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said.
Anthea Higgins, 43, of Potomac, Md., who was visiting the zoo with her children, Sean, 8, and Caroline, 6, said the panda birth was “spectacular."
In a chaotic world, “it’s a little piece of hope," she said.
The zoo announced Aug. 20 that Mei Xiang had entered the final phase of her annual reproductive cycle — one that would conclude in 40 to 50 days, with or without a cub.
The 14-year-old panda had been artificially inseminated April 29 and 30 after she and the zoo’s male giant panda, Tian Tian, 15, failed to mate successfully.
The zoo said it was instructive that she was inseminated with frozen sperm from Tian Tian that was saved after the successful insemination that produced the zoo’s only prior cub, Tai Shan, in 2005.
On Sept. 4, the zoo went into the standard 24-hour-a-day panda pregnancy watch, in which volunteers monitor cameras in the panda compound day and night for signs of a cub.
The zoo said Mei Xiang had grown less interested in food, shredding bamboo mainly to build a nest in her den and using large bamboo stalks for the same purpose.
Over the Labor Day weekend, she started cradling toys, as if they were cubs, and exhibiting other signs that she might be pregnant, the zoo said.
She would not cooperate in ultrasound procedures Sept. 10 and 11.
Zoo experts did conduct an ultrasound test on the panda Sept. 4, but it was inconclusive.
“The only way we could definitely say that Mei is pregnant before she gives birth is if our veterinarians see a fetus on an ultrasound — which they haven’t," the zoo said in a statement Sept. 6. “It is not uncommon for panda ultrasounds to be inconclusive, and it is very difficult to see a fetus on an ultrasound."
It is hard to determine whether a giant panda is pregnant, because the animal can exhibit many false signs.