It’s no secret that for the staff of the Smithsonian National Zoo, the arrival Sunday night of a baby giant panda bear is not only exciting and heartwarming, but also rewarding. Zoo director Dennis Kelly and the panda team have endured two false pregnancies with Mei Xiang (she's had five total). While this is not Kelly’s first panda birth as a zoo director, it is his first at the National Zoo, where he’s been running the show for two and a half years. He chatted with us by phone today, but he kept connected to the nursery. During our conversation, he listened over a monitor to the new panda, making its baby noises from the secluded cave it shares with its mother.
When was the last time you had this much excitement?
[laughs] Every day is exciting here at the National Zoo, being around animals being born. I’ve been involved with other panda births at other institutions, but this is one of the most exciting times I’ve ever experienced.
What was your last panda gig?
I ran Zoo Atlanta for six and a half years, and while I was there we had two cubs born. [He turns away from the phone.] I have to turn down the volume on my little squealing baby.
Is it making noise right now as we speak?
Yes—vocalizing in a very healthy way. But I haven’t seen her yet.
Her? Do you know something we don’t know?
I don’t know why I ascribe that gender to her. The first cub I ever experienced, we actually misjudged the gender for five years. We’ve now learned by experience it is possible to mistake a male for a female because the way the body parts are put together. Sometimes the male’s equipment is tucked inside until it is fully mature.
So do you determine the sex with DNA?
Yes. This time, it will be when we get a blood sample, but that is weeks down the road. We’ll use a blood sample or an ultrasound.
How did you find out the news of the birth?
I got a phone call at 11 o’clock that our watchers had detected the noises of the cub. I live about 200 meters from the front entrance of the Zoo. I rushed right over. We had carefully planned and rehearsed for a birth for many years. Our phone tree was immediately put into action. From that standpoint, everything went as planned.
What are the immediate steps taken?
We do a number of things. We move the visitor perimeter outward at the Panda House. We’re giving Mei Xiang a quiet and secure zone. In the wild, this particular species of bear would be caring for the cub in a cave or tree high on the side of a mountain. We’re trying to replicate that. We’ve taken procedures to keep noise down. Nobody’s gotten within 20 meters of her. We’re watching her carefully on the television monitor.
If noise is an issue, are you worried about the thunderstorm forecast for today?
A little, but not too much. There are thunderstorms in China. But I’m like a nervous parent; I worry about everything. All of us feel an awesome responsibility to take as a great a care of this animal as we can. A bad thunderstorm with a lot of lightning strikes would scare me. It could upset her a little bit, too, but I’m pretty confident she’ll get through that.
There are more worrisome things, like disease, illness—the things that are difficult to control. The good news is I have one of the most competent and dedicated teams in the world.
Is there a period of time that is the danger zone for a newborn panda?
This particular animal is born so tiny, it will be a year before we feel we’re out of the woods. I look forward to seeing it tumbling down a hill with its mom. [Mei Xiang] is already producing milk. We’re hoping and assuming he’s nursing by now. That should happen within 24 hours, and there’s evidence that it is happening. I’ll be a whole lot more comfortable when I see photo of him cuddling up to his mom.
Did you call the Chinese government to let them know?
We did contact the embassy by e-mail, and we got immediate responses back. There are about a half dozen folks in China who are very interested. We heard back from them almost immediately.
How many people are on the panda team?
At any given time, directly, about six people. They are the keepers, trained to respond to the animal’s needs. Also, a couple of dozen volunteers are trained to support that team. We have a 24-hour watch, live human beings taking notes every 30 seconds and recording behaviors. The shifts range from two to four hours. Two volunteers at a time, relieving each other. It’s a very intense, deep community that has been doing this for many, many years.
Are there any new developments in the past 24 hours?
I’m listening for a good strong vocalization about every 10 to 20 minutes. I have an ear out for that lovely little squeal. But the very best care for this panda cub is its mom. With any species, Mom knows best, and that’s what zoological institutions have come to realize.
Mei Xiang has had two babies. If the fertility period lasts until approximately age 20, will you make efforts to have one more pregnancy?
We will take the lead on the animal. She seems to be very viable and healthy. The best thing for this kind of bear is for her to regularly have cubs. That’s what she would be doing in the wild. She’s genetically important, and we know that.
What will be the stages of introducing the baby to the public?
Again, we know from our own experience, it is up to Mom and the cub. But somewhere in the 60-to-90-day range is when [they] will feel comfortable to come out.
It’s been an exciting summer with the cheetah cubs, a new trail, and now the panda cub. What have you got for Washington next?
We’ve made some quiet changes. We know folks in Washington didn’t think our food was as good and as healthy as it could be, and we’ve revamped that. We know folks wanted more excitement, and we’ve added a historic carousel. The new Elephant Community Center will open next spring. We’re taking a historic 1930s house that used to be 90 percent for humans and 10 percent for animals and we’re flipping it on its head—10 percent for humans and 90 percent for animals.