Den Mothers

Panda cub Tai Shan makes his long-awaited debut today, thanks in part to the round-the clock care of a team of keepers.

December 08, 2005|By ABIGAIL TUCKER | ABIGAIL TUCKER,SUN REPORTER

Long before he could walk, the infant panda Tai Shan wandered into Nicole Meese's dreams. She wasn't sure what he was doing there - in the days just after his birth in July, Tai Shan weighed only about 4 ounces and wasn't doing much of anything - but one night she awoke in her Silver Spring home thinking of him. Early the next morning she called the zoo; the baby, they told her, was fine.

Another night later that summer, the slumbering panda keeper was startled into semiconsciousness by the unmistakable crunch of bamboo. This wasn't a dream, she realized, coming to on an air mattress on the cold floor. It was the sound of Tai Shan's 250-pound father enjoying a midnight snack on the other side of the cinderblock wall that separated his cage from the keepers' backroom, where Meese was resting during the round-the-clock baby watch. Once again, Tai Shan was safe.

"I tried to go back to sleep," 32-year-old Meese said.

Since his birth five months ago, the National Zoo's giant panda cub has dominated the thoughts - sleeping, waking, and every state of awareness in between - of Meese and his two other main keepers. These women have done their best to escape public notice, dodging the ubiquitous Panda Cam and withdrawing into their turtlenecks during interviews, but they've been his near-constant companions, overseeing his transformation from a frail pinkish waif to the romping, plump cub who will be introduced to his adoring public today.

They've skipped sleep and vacations, celebrated Thanksgiving by watching Tai Shan scramble to the top of his rock pile for the first time, and generally hunkered down in the cramped people rooms behind the picturesque mountain murals of the zoo's panda exhibit.

"We've come in early," Meese said.

"We've stayed late," said Laurie Perry, 34, another keeper.

All for the love of a mewling, pooping toddler who, as far as they can tell, has only the slightest notion that they exist.

They wouldn't have it any other way.

"We want him to be a panda cub, a true panda cub," said Perry. "Not a panda cub raised by people."

They've been more midwives than surrogate moms, there to safeguard the relationship between the baby and mother, 7-year-old Mei Xiang, who had never given birth before. She's gamely shouldered the work, not eating for 19 days as she tended to the cub, and all the while giving off a palpable air of exhaustion, as though the black rings around her eyes were from lack of sleep.

Mei Xiang supplies his milk (he won't be ready to eat bamboo for another month or so) and even cleans his messes (mother pandas eat nursing babies' waste, to deter predators). The keepers, who have some 40 years of zoo experience among them and also work with primates, have rarely intervened. Aside from the brutal hours, it's business as usual, mucking the enclosures and doling out the daily adult meal of 80 pounds of bamboo.

Only they worry more.

Mortality rates for captive-bred cubs like Tai Shan are incredibly high, particularly in the period just after birth. None of the five cubs born at the zoo in the 1980s to another pair of pandas lived longer than a few days. So little is known about this rare, solitary species that keepers don't always recognize the signs of distress. Up until the morning Tai Shan was born, in fact, the keepers weren't even sure his mother was pregnant.

Keeper Brenda Morgan was there early on the morning of July 9, summoned from her Falls Church bed by a volunteer at the zoo who was monitoring the den. Though Mei Xiang was breathing fast and deep, the groggy Morgan had her doubts: Mei Xiang had false pregnancies the two previous breeding seasons; this year, staff members hadn't bothered to organize their annual pregnancy pool.

But then, at 3:41 a.m., Mei Xiang strained in her den. As Morgan, 52, watched on the camera, a tiny object shot out of the panda and struck the wall - an alarming development.

"Whoops," thought Morgan, now wide awake. "We've got a cub."

And she heard it: a high, lusty squeal that was very much alive.

Veterinarians and other zoo officials were called, and the keepers began their 24-hour vigil. Yet it would be almost a month before they would be able to touch the baby. Some panda breeding programs isolate new cubs right away, and Tai Shan's keepers had an incubator and sterilized bottles ready, but they gathered dust as Mei Xiang proved herself an able mother, and the baby, who initially resembled a naked mole rat, spent his days on his mother's chest or tucked beneath her chin. Like the rest of the Panda Cam-transfixed nation, the three women could barely catch a glimpse. They didn't even know his sex.

A magic moment

The first contact came Aug. 2, when Mei Xiang ambled away for a drink of water, and Perry, a former zoo volunteer with a degree in biology, spied a chance for a preliminary exam. She briskly entered the cage to pick up the cub.

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