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Baby panda born at Zoo Atlanta
By TOM SABULIS
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 09/06/06
The unbearable wait is over for Zoo Atlanta: Seven years after arriving from China and following a record-setting 35 hours in labor, Lun Lun the giant panda delivered her first cub Wednesday.
The nearly furless baby, about the size of a stick of butter, officially arrived at 4:51 p.m. in a panda birthing bin at the zoo in Atlanta's Grant Park neighborhood. Early indications were that the tiny cub, one of only a few ever born in the United States, is healthy and being cared for by its mother.
"This is just an awesome thing," said Tom Smith, an animal keeper at the zoo. "It's a great day for Zoo Atlanta. Zoos are here for education and conservation and this will be a real morale boost for all of us."
Zoo staff will be on watch for perhaps another 24 hours to see if the new panda, which is estimated to weigh just 4 ounces, has a twin. Fifty percent of panda births result in twin cubs.
If it survives, the new cub would be just the fifth to be born and raised successfully in a U.S. zoo.
The historic birth, achieved via artifical insemination in March, represents a significant milestone for the critically endangered panda species and Zoo Atlanta. It also ends years of disappointment over the inability of Lun Lun and the male Yang Yang to mate naturally and procreate.
The baby's sex is not known, and might not be for weeks, until Lun Lun (pronounced "loon loon") lets zookeepers get a close look at it. Zoo policy is not to intervene in maternal care unless something goes wrong.
It will be three to four months before the cub can be seen by the public.
Zoo Atlanta President and CEO Dennis Kelly was elated but cautious.
"It sounds good, everything looks great so far. We remain concerned because she's a first-time mom, and we're going to have to keep a careful watch," Kelly said. "Just remember that [panda] infant mortality is very high, and what we're going to be looking for ... is active nursing."
Kelly said the birth should "dramatically" increase interest in zoo exhibits.
"But the most important thing is that we've added to the very critically endangered population of the panda."
Zoo staff had been monitoring Lun Lun closely since before the Labor Day weekend. The watch intensified after the panda's water broke about 6 a.m. Tuesday.
Birth can follow almost immediately, but the longest labor on record for a panda in captivity had been 34 hours. Lun Lun took 35 hours to deliver her cub.
At about 4:50 p.m. Wednesday, zookeepers heard Lun Lun make a bleating sound and get on all fours. Almost immediately, they heard the squealing of the new cub.
The observation room where the zoo staff had gathered became tense as curators, keepers and veterinarians waited to see how the first-time mother would react.
As they watched, Lun Lun began sniffing at the cub, poking at it and circling it. She then sat down and held it, and its squeaking became more muffled. The new mother then stood up, placed the cub in her mouth in a normal set of behaviors, and began walking around before sitting again in a corner, where it appeared she was trying to guide her baby to nurse.
Excited zoo staffers had little time to celebrate the birth. Not only are the first days of life precarious for newborn pandas, it is possible they may be seeing another birth shortly: They thought they saw water break for a second cub at about 4:15 p.m. Wednesday.
Cubs are born physically undeveloped — blind, nearly furless, almost helpless, and weighing only 3-4 ounces. They are about the size of a chipmunk and 1/900 the weight of the mother. (If the same size relationship existed in humans, a 130-pound woman would give birth to a baby weighing 2 to 2 1/2 ounces.)
Mother pandas have been known to reject cubs, even healthy babies. If that were to happen zookeepers would remove the cub and hand-rear it, said Rebecca Snyder, panda curator at Zoo Atlanta.
In the wild, when a second cub is born, the mother typically raises only one of them, abandoning the second. Should Lun Lun have a second cub, zookeepers would alternate caring for the cubs with the mother.
When fully grown, a panda is about the same size as an American black bear, 4 to 5 feet in length and up to 350 pounds. Pandas typically live into their late teens and early 20s. A few have been known to survive into their 30s.
Kate Roca, 27, one of the zoo's animal keepers, discovered that the panda's water had broken early Tuesday.
"When she rolled over, she was very wet with a clear jelly substance, some on her shoulder and some on her head," Roca said. "I was speechless."
Up to that moment, panda keepers had been observing what they believed to be signs of Lun Lun's impending motherhood for days: her increasing dilation, nest-building and almost complete lack of appetite. But there was still a question as to whether she was pregnant. Pandas often have false pregnancies and experts rarely know pandas are actually pregnant until they are delivering a newborn.
The cub's birth helps validate the enormous cost of having pandas in Atlanta. Zoo Atlanta pays about $2.7 million annually in loan fees to China, which owns the animals, and maintenance costs. The birth of a cub could significantly increase those costs. The zoo has been negotiating with China to reduce the loan fees. The animals arrived here in 1999 on a 10-year loan.
On the flip side, the panda baby, if it survives, would surely boost zoo coffers. Zoo Atlanta President and CEO Dennis Kelly said earlier this year that a newborn would increase annual attendance from the current 700,000 to 1 million in the first year and possibly draw new sponsorships.
Last year at National Zoo in Washington, attendance jumped 50 percent in the first three months its panda cub, Tai Shan, went on exhibit.
"It has been pretty tense around here," Kelly said Wednesday. "It's been a real roller coaster for the last two weeks. Emotions have been up and down. "
A baby panda is rare in the United States, where only three zoos besides Atlanta's — San Diego, Memphis and the National Zoo — exhibit the animals, recognized as the global icon for conservation. Three pandas have been born and raised successfully at the San Diego Zoo, including one last year. Memphis has not had a successful panda birth.
The new cub, like its parents, is owned by China. After two to three years, a new panda is usually expected to return to its ancestral homeland. However, Zoo Atlanta's new cub could stay longer, because part of the zoo's agreement with China is to study babies' relationships with their mothers.
Although they've roamed bamboo forests in the higher elevations of China for centuries, the number of pandas seriously dwindled in the 20th century due to poaching and the disappearance of their natural habitat.
In the wilds of China, there are now an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 pandas. One recent census pinpointed the figure at 1,600. Approximately 188 live in captivity around the world.
According to Chinese custom, Atlanta's panda will be named at a ceremony held a hundred days after its birth.
The new panda was conceived through artificial insemination in March with semen taken from Yang Yang. The procedure was conducted when the pandas failed to mate this year. Although natural mating is preferred, Lun Lun, 9, and Yang Yang, who turns 9 on Saturday, have never copulated, zoo officials said. Lun Lun has been artificially inseminated each of the last three years.
The pandas share the same habitat, but they are kept apart most of the year to prevent injuries that may occur from rough play. During the brief mating season in March, Lun Lun and Yang Yang are put together for mating purposes. They are monitored 24 hours. Artificial insemination then takes place if natural mating does not.