Meet Washington's adorable VIP (very important panda)
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"We've learned a lot about how an inexperienced female gets it right, and this will help us in the future establish a good birth environment for female pandas," says Suzan Murray, the zoo's chief veterinarian.Skip to next paragraph
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Zoo staff did not examine the cub until he was about three weeks old, when Mei finally left him alone for a few minutes to eat and drink. It was only then they determined he was male. At 100 days old, according to Chinese custom, he was named. The public voted for Tai Shan - "peaceful mountain" - from a list of names presented by the China Wildlife Conservation Association. Under the loan agreement, Tai will return to China when he turns two. Zoo staff insist they are prepared for that moment - and, indeed, that it will be a joyous occasion, because he will have lots of other pandas to breed with.
"We'll miss him, of course," allows Jo Gayle Howard, the reproductive scientist who artificially inseminated Mei after the panda couple failed to conceive naturally.
Whether Tai will miss the zoo staff is a different question. So far, he doesn't seem to know who all those people are - nearly all women - poking and measuring and fussing around him regularly.
"We're kinda the big strange animal that comes around that's not his mother, and I don't think he quite knows what we are," says Lisa Stevens, the assistant curator for pandas. She says Tai doesn't show any particular affection toward humans, though she thinks he's starting to respond to human voices, noting that he responds to people differently than he does to his mother. The keepers insist on calling him Tai Shan - no nicknames, like Butterstick - so he will learn his name.
Tai has also started to be assertive with both the zoo staff and his mother. If someone does something he doesn't like, he barks. He chases the keepers around - and his mother, too. Tai also likes to climb on mom and chew on her, which she tolerates more or less. (He is kept away from his dad, Tian Tian.) For now, Tai's only food is Mei's high-fat milk, and he will continue to nurse for another year. He won't start eating bamboo for another month.
Some of the action is viewable via the Web on the "panda cam" (http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/GiantPandas/). For some in Washington, watching panda cam can be addictive (but, editors note, not this reporter, whose Mac thankfully couldn't tune in); women, in particular, can't get enough of Mei cuddling her baby and demonstrating her natural mothering skills. Some have reportedly called the zoo in a moment of worry that Mei was about to crush her baby.
The femaleness of the whole panda enterprise has not gone unnoticed. Guys who claim they "don't get" the cute panda thing just don't want to express themselves openly, says zoo spokesman John Gibbons. "There may be a cool male factor going on here," he says.
Zoologists have even analyzed why humans are so taken by pandas: Their features are similar to those of human babies - the big eyes, big round head, little ears that stick up, their general pudginess. Adult pandas don't grow out of these features, and thus they maintain their appeal. For those who want to see Tai's saga - including live footage of his birth - Animal Planet will première a documentary, "A Panda is Born," on Dec. 10 at 8 p.m. (EST).