The Smithsonian National Zoo welcomed three new pandas these past several months and has slowly begun to introduce them to the public on public-viewing days.
Rusty, a male red panda famous for his temporary escape in 2013, and his two cubs are thriving at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Along with their father, the one-year-old cubs, Tusa and Asa, join fellow red pandas on the red list of endangered species, meaning there are fewer than 10,000 of them left in the wild.
The third panda, Bei Bei, sparked the public’s interest with his birth five months ago on Aug. 22.
On Bei Bei’s public-viewing day on Jan. 16, 10,000 visitors entered the zoo and 7,000 of them visited the panda exhibit, a greater amount than for Bei Bei’s older sister Bao Bao in January 2014. The general public was able to watch Bei Bei’s growth through an online camera before his debut.
Currently, the Smithsonian Zoo is home to four giant pandas: Tian Tian, his mother Mei Xiang and their daughter Bao Bao, and Bei Bei. Tai Shan, their firstborn, was sent back to China in 2010.
In the public viewings thus far, Bei Bei, whose name means precious treasure in Chinese, has developed a reputation for being rather sleepy, which he proved by sleeping through his media checkup.
Bei Bei has also been quite popular in the media, with articles featuring him published in several newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, in addition to blogs and videos dedicated to him. First Lady Michelle Obama and China’s first lady Peng Liyuan have both visited him.
Spokeswoman for the zoo Devin Murphy said that Bei Bei’s popularity is likely due to the relationship the public has maintained with him since his birth.
“The public has been able to watch Bei Bei since the moment he was born through the panda cam and that’s why they feel very attached to him,” Murphy said. “And they’ve been able to see exactly what we’re seeing.”
Pandas are an endangered species with only 1,800 left in the wild and have a notoriously difficult time reproducing. Mother pandas give birth to twins 50 percent of the time but in the wild, the mother can only take care of one, often causing the other to die.
Bei Bei, was a result of artificial insemination. However, his sibling died at four days old. Although Mei Xiang, their mother, began nursing both cubs, she had difficulty caring for the both of them. The zoo swapped the babies until Mei Xiang rejected the weaker one, allowing it to bottle-feed him.
A pathology report attributed Bei Bei’s brother’s death to an aspiration of food in his respiratory system, resulting in pneumonia and eventually death.
Murphy said that zoo staff tailored its care for Bei Bei and Bao Bao according to indications it receive sfrom Mei Xiang.
“Really, Mei Xiang has raised both of her cubs, so we take all of our cues from her and she is an excellent mom. And based on what she’s telling us, we move at her pace,” Murphy said. “We’ve done things very similarly with Bei Bei and Bao Bao.”
The Smithsonian will have the pandas until 2020, when the lease expires. Bei Bei will only be here for the first four years of his life before he joins his older sister in China. The cubs are transferred in order to aid the process of creating more pandas and generating research on the species.
For now, Bei Bei is in good health and is expected to continue to grow. Murphy is looking forward to Bei Bei’s development.
“We expect his climbing skills to get a little better,” Murphy said. “He’s probably going to work on perfecting them over the next couple of months. He’s probably going to start eating bamboo around six months of age so he’s going to be nursing from his mom for at least another year.”
Murphy added that as people continue to visit him, visitors will be able to see the changes in Bei Bei over time as he grows and thrives with his family.
“He’s going to be changing week by week so if you visit multiple times, you’re likely to see something different every time,” Murphy said.
David Harris, a zoo visitor who went to the general public viewing, had yet to visit the zoo before attending Bei Bei’s debut.
“We came to visit family and meet family for our kids,” Harris said. “We hadn’t been to the zoo before. We’re happy to be here when the new panda is coming.”
His children interrupted him to express their excitement over the pandas.
“They’re really cute,” the Harris children said. “They’re pretty far up on my list.”
Kate Cole (MSB ’18), president of Animalia, a student group that aims to ensure humane animal treatment, praised the cooperation between the National Zoo and China.
“I think it’s great that the zoo is working towards helping the panda population stay alive and trying to get it off the endangered list. I love the bear,” Cole said. “If China decided that the zoo is the best place for it to be raised then that’s awesome. China loves their pandas so much that I’m sure if they chose for it to be raised here, then that’s the best thing for it and that’s all you can ask for.”