The factory is silent. Its assembly line stands motionless. Somewhere off in the darkness, a buzzer sounds. One by one, lights begin to flicker and illuminate on long-unmanned diagnostic panels, giving a sense of enormity and complexity and scale to the machinery. The low hum of power supplies warming up comes next, followed by the higher and louder whine of turbines and electric motors. A whistle sounds, and one by one, employees begin to file in and take their places at the controls. Purposed for a single task, whose time has now come, the factory slowly comes to life...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sad Panda!

This morning I cried for my panda.

First of all, I love pandas. Always have.

When Craig and I moved to the DC area for a couple of years, one of the first things we did was develop a keen interest in the pandas at the National Zoo, Mei Xiang(f) and Tian Tian(m). We watched when their baby, Tai Shan was born, got tickets to see him right away, went to the opening of their new habitat, and visited them as often as we could. We even found our own "panda viewing area" that not too many people know about.

Most people who know even a little about pandas know that it's very difficult for them to breed in captivity, and this couple was no exception. The females only go into estrus once a year during a period of about two to three days (and we think we have to wait a long time to try!) And Tian Tian...well, let's just say he hasn't got the moves.

So once a year the zookeepers try artificial insemination when the time is right, and keep their fingers crossed, and hope for the best. Tai Shan was born in 2005, but since then they have not been successful again.

The added challenge to the situation is that even if the zookeepers are successful, the panda cubs are so tiny in the womb, that they can't detect them on ultrasound. They pretty much just have to wait until it looks like Mama Panda has gone into labor and a baby shoots out! (That's not hyperbole -- see if you can track down Tai Shan's birth video!)

The other tricky part about pandas is that while their hormones are spiking, they will exhibit "mothering" behaviors whether or not they are pregnant. They call this time period a "pseudopregnancy" and either wait for it to pass in conjunction with a hormone fall, or again waiting for a baby panda to come into the world. Wanna-be-mama bears will create nests, cradle their toys and spend a lot of time making it look like they're getting ready for a baby.

Well, this year was no exception for Mei. Except coincidentally, my favorite panda girl and I got "pregnant" at around the same time. Her baby would of course have been born much sooner than mine, but somehow I still felt a closer kinship with her, another sense of heartwarming simpatico. We were going to be mommies! I started making my life ready, and she started building nests and paw licking and cradling her toys...

So of course you all know how my story ended, but today I found out that a few days ago the zoo staff confirmed that Mei wasn't going to have a cub this year either. The difference this time is that they really thought she *could have been* pregnant, but lost her fetus in early pregnancy. From the FONZ site:

Zoo staff confirmed today that Mei Xiang will not give birth to a cub this year. They believe that she experienced either a pseudopregnancy or the loss of a developing fetus. In a pseudopregnancy, an animal's hormonal changes and behaviors are identical to a pregnancy, but no conception occurred. Fetal loss during early pregnancy is a common occurrence in mammals, but the reasons for this phenomenon are poorly understood.

As you read in these updates, Zoo scientists, veterinarians, and keepers were closely watching Mei Xiang, assessing her hormone levels and behavior and conducting weekly ultrasounds in an attempt to determine if she was pregnant. Veterinarians noted small changes in Mei Xiang's uterus but they were unable to confirm the presence of a fetus. Giant panda fetuses are very small — a newborn cub is only five inches long. At other zoos, fetuses have been visible on ultrasound only in the last weeks before birth.

In mid-July Mei Xiang's urinary progesterone levels (a hormone associated with pregnancy) began to decline. In pregnant pandas, declining hormones and increased maternal behaviors signal an impending birth. This year, Mei Xiang's hormones declined as expected, but the decline lasted longer than normal and she continued to show maternal behavior even after her hormones reached baseline. The Zoo's scientists and veterinarians speculate that Mei Xiang may have experienced the loss of an early-stage fetus that failed to develop normally, and it was absorbed into the lining of the uterus. In the coming days, we expect Mei to return to "normal," both hormonally and behaviorally, experiencing an increase in appetite and activity level.

I know that my girl panda probably won't feel the same loss, the same *need* to 'return to "normal" both hormonally and behaviorally' as I did, but I feel it for her instead. She and her keepers won't get any answers "why" either. My poor panda.

(For the record, I cried for my panda again as I was writing this...)


  1. You might want to join our Yahoo Group

    We are all fans of the National Zoo's pandas and pandas in general.


  2. Well thank you, Lynn. I think I will! :-)


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