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The National Zoo Redoubled Its Efforts to Have a Successful Giant Panda Birth

FONZ executive director Robert Lamb talks about a year ago and now.

The National Zoo's new panda cub. Photograph via the National Zoo's Flickr page.

There won’t be an official update on the newborn giant panda until after it is examined Tuesday for a second time since its birth, and even then National Zoo officials will make a report only if there’s something to say, but they indicate that all continues to go well with the five-day-old cub. They also remain cautiously exuberant because the cub appears healthy. An announcement Sunday reported on a first neonatal exam and noted that the veterinarians found the baby to be “a bright, healthy shade of pink.”

The cub was born to Mei Xiang on Friday evening. A second birth happened later, but that cub was stillborn. All of this excitement comes almost a year after Mei Xiang’s last pregnancy, when a cub was born but died after six days due to lung complications. In 2005, Mei Xiang gave birth to a male cub, Tai Shan, who remained at the zoo for five years before moving to China.

On Monday we spoke by phone with Robert Lamb, the executive director of Friends of the National Zoo, the nonprofit corporation that supports a variety of zoo programs, about both last year’s panda birth and what’s different with the most recent one.

What was it like last year after the six-day-old panda baby died?

Devastating. There was so much excitement. A panda birth is such a wonderful experience. We have worked every year since the birth of Tai Shan to have another cub. It’s very challenging and difficult and heart-wrenching.

Was there anything you could or should have done differently?

We don’t think so. We talked to all the other zoos, and particularly our Chinese colleagues, about ways in which we might alter procedures. They brought up the idea of removing the cub [from its mother] and getting an early neonatal exam.

And that was yesterday and all indications were good?

Yes.

And they remain so?

Right.

How did the institution regroup after last September?

We redoubled our efforts. We sent zoo staff over to China. We’ll do anything in our power to improve the chances of survival of the cub.

What was different this time?

The procedure of removing the cub. The Chinese sent one of their experts over to be present and help advise. He came a few days ahead of time.

In so many ways the pandas are your star attraction. When the pandas are down is everyone there down, and when the pandas are up, everyone is up?

I wouldn’t say that. We focus on endangered species. There are a lot of things that give us joy. We have two tigers just born. We are working at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, breeding animals in danger of extinction. We’ve had some significant successes. We’ve opened two new exhibits. We have a wonderful new facility for elephants and just acquired a new elephant, so we will have a herd of seven Asian elephants. We opened the American Trail, where we have a brand new seal and sea lion exhibit. We just introduced a new exhibit on gray wolves. We now have two bald eagles.

With this new panda birth, is there a sense of caution?

Last year we were extraordinarily cautious, and we’re being that way here. People dedicate their lives to these animals. I have been at the zoo now seven years, and I am so impressed with the professionalism, skill, and dedication of our animal care staff. It’s outstanding.

How do you top the panda birth?

Continue the long journey to see animals that are under threat of extinction caged and ultimately restored to the wild.

Who will get to choose the new baby’s name?

I don’t think that’s been decided yet. Tai Shan’s name was selected by the public. Maybe we’ll do something like that.

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