WASHINGTON — A giant panda at Washington's zoo surprised scientists and zookeepers by becoming a mom again after years of failed pregnancies.
Scientists at the zoo had all but given up on 14-year-old Mei Xiang's chances of conceiving, but they were watching the panda for a possible cub nonetheless after she was artificially inseminated earlier this year. She gave birth late Sunday, her first cub since 2005.
Like all newborn pandas, the cub is pink, hairless and about the size of a stick of butter. Officials will follow Chinese custom and give it a name after 100 days.
Four American zoos have pandas, but Washington's pandas have special significance. The zoo was given its first set of pandas in 1972 as a gift from China to commemorate President Richard Nixon's historic visit to the country.
Mei Xiang and her mate Tian Tian, were born in China and are the second pair of pandas to live at the zoo. They're treated like royalty, and any offspring gets immediate star status.
"There's something very special here with our pandas," said giant panda curator Brandie Smith. "Everyone is part of our family. We, Washington, D.C., have had a baby panda cub."
Mei Xiang gave birth to her first and only other cub, a male named Tai Shan, in 2005. Since 2007, zoo officials have had five unsuccessful attempts at artificially inseminating Mei Xiang. Each time, she went through what is called a "pseudopregnancy," building a nest and experiencing high hormone levels. But each time there was no cub.
Scientists at the zoo worried she had become infertile and believed there was a less than a 10 percent chance she would become pregnant after so many failed attempts. As a result, they had considered replacing Mei Xiang or 15-year-old Tian Tian with other pandas.
Still, there was hope.
Laurie Thompson, one of the about half a dozen panda keepers at the zoo, said each of the keepers gave Mei Xiang a pep talk.
"I know you can do this. You need to prove them wrong. You need to have a baby this year," she said she told Mei Xiang, who she has worked with since 2000.
Thompson said she got a telephone call Sunday night from another keeper. "I think I hear a panda cub," the keeper said. A small group then got on their computers to watch the zoo's panda cam. Sure enough, there was the unmistakable bird-like screech of a cub.