News & Politics

National Zoo Issues Alert for Heightened State of Panda Frenzy

Photograph courtesy National Zoo

Mei Xiang, the National Zoo’s adult female giant panda, may be pregnant again. Or she could be experiencing a pseudopregnancy. That’s the finding from the zoo’s scientists, who say Monday that the bear has experienced a secondary rise in her urinary progesterone levels, confirming that Mei Xiang has come to a crucial point in her gestational cycle.

But there will be no way of knowing if Mei Xiang is actually pregnant until she either has another cub or if her hormone levels return to normal without giving birth within 30 to 50 days. Giant panda fetuses do not develop until the final weeks of a pregnancy, making them all-but-impossible to detect on an ultrasound.

Mei Xiang, who gave birth in 2013 to red-panda-sex-ruiner Bao Bao, was artificially inseminated in April with sperm samples collected from her famously feeble mate Tian Tian and Hui Hui, a giant panda living in China whose genetic material is considered far more “genetically valuable” to the species. As with Bao Bao, if Mei Xiang is indeed pregnant, the zoo will have to order up another Maury Povich-style paternity test. (The zoo used samples from two male pandas in Mei Xiang’s 2013 pregnancy, which produced Bao Bao, who was later confirmed to be Tian Tian’s offspring.)

In recent days, Mei Xiang has retreated to the indoor panda habitat, where she has been building a nest, sleeping more, and eating less. While she is still on display today, the zoo will close off her part of the exhibit to all visitors during the final stages of the (possibly fake) pregnancy. (Giant pandas are known to sometimes fake pregnancies in order to upgrade their already lavish treatment.) The panda cams will remain switched on, though, because the life of a giant panda is nothing if not an exercise in human voyeurism. Tian Tian and Bao Bao will still be outdoor pandas.

In addition to Bao Bao, Mei Xiang has given birth to ten-year-old male panda Butterstick (d/b/a Tai Shan), who was shipped to China—which owns all giant pandas everywhere—in 2009. But after giving birth to Butterstick in 2005, Mei Xiang experienced consecutive pseudopregnancies until 2012, when she birthed a cub that died after six days.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.