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Birth of panda cub brings ‘joyous news’ to the National Zoo

FILE - In this Aug. 23, 2015 file photo, The Smithsonian National Zoo's Giant Panda Mei Ziang, sleeps in the indoor habitat at the zoo in Washington. Zookeepers at Washington’s National Zoo are on baby watch after concluding that venerable giant panda matriarch Mei Ziang is pregnant and could give birth this week. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

(AP) — Giant panda Mei Xiang gave birth Friday to a wiggling cub and
immediately began cuddling her offspring, Washington’s National Zoo

The cub was born at 6:35 p.m. Eastern Time, the zoo said in
an Instagram post that announced the “joyous news.” It will take some
time before the sex of the cub can be determined.

“Mei Xiang
picked the cub up immediately and began cradling and caring for it,” the
zoo said in a statement. “The panda team heard the cub vocalize.”

Panda lovers around the world were able to see the birth on the zoo’s Panda Cam. Zookeepers also were using the camera to keep an eye on mom and baby.

cub is Mei Xiang’s fourth. Her first three offspring, Tai Shan, Bao Bao
and Bei Bei, were transported to China at age 4 under an agreement with
the Chinese government.

“Giant pandas are an international symbol
of endangered wildlife and hope, and with the birth of this precious
cub we are thrilled to offer the world a much-needed moment of pure
joy,” said Steve Monfort, John and Adrienne Mars Director of the
Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. “Because
Mei Xiang is of advanced maternal age, we knew the chances of her having
a cub were slim. However, we wanted to give her one more opportunity to
contribute to her species’ survival.”

At 22, Mei Xiang is the
oldest giant panda to successfully give birth in the United States. The
oldest in the world gave birth in China at age 23.

Mei Xiang gave
birth in a small den, where she created a nest out of branches.
Although the place looks tiny for a big panda, the zoo said giant pandas
in wild give birth in small dens. “They stay in these dens for about
the cub’s first 100 days,” the zoo said on Instagram.

Earlier this
week, the zoo, part of the Smithsonian Institution, posted an image
from Mei Xiang’s ultrasound that confirmed the pregnancy. “Keep your
paws crossed!” the zoo posted, reporting that the fetus was “kicking and
swimming in the amniotic fluid.”

“We need this! We totally need
this joy,” zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said earlier this week
when the pregnancy was confirmed. “We are all in desperate need of these

Giant pandas at birth are about the size of a stick
of butter. They’re pink and hairless; the distinctive black and white
fur markings of giant pandas come later.

The zoo said Mei was
impregnated via artificial insemination, a process which was heavily
affected by precautions over the COVID-19 pandemic. The procedure was
conducted shortly after the entire zoo shut down on March 14. The zoo
has since reopened on a limited basis.

The father is giant panda Tian Tian.

Rather than using a combination of stored frozen sperm and fresh semen, the zoo inseminated Mei Xiang only with thawed-out semen to minimize the number of close-quarters medical procedures. If successful, it would be the first of its kind in the U.S. using only frozen sperm.

Associated Press writer Ashfraf Khalil contributed to this report.