In case you've somehow missed all of the adorable videos, the photos, or the live stream, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., last week introduced the world to a blind, pink and mostly hairless animal the size of a hamster that is, in fact, a baby panda.
Because pandas are so darn cute and rare – and because baby pandas are particularly hard to come by – this is all very exciting. The National Zoo, like a handful of zoos around the world with pandas on loan from China, has been trying for years to coax another cub out of its two resident giant pandas. And this is more than an exercise in drumming up merchandising revenue: The future of the species is heavily dependent on breeding efforts in captivity.
With this latest famous cub barely days old, the New Yorker has a fascinating story (subscription required) in its newest issue about the trials of panda-mating at the National Zoo (well played, New Yorker!). Washington's pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, you see, are "reproductively incompetent." That's compared to the pandas at the San Diego Zoo who, to use a not-so-scientific zoological euphemism, have "no need for sex aids fashioned by zoo carpenters."
If ever you wanted to read an unsexy story about sex – or a story about the very strange day jobs of panda handlers in city zoos – this is it, courtesy of writer David Owen. The central dilemma:
Female pandas are receptive only once a year, and sometimes are fertile for less than a day – an unusually narrow breeding window. As spring approaches, scientists at the National Zoo monitor Mei Xiang’s behavior and hormone levels, and a Chinese consultant prepares to fly to Washington on short notice, to assist. In China and elsewhere, panda handlers have encouraged unenthusiastic pairs by showing them “panda porn” – footage of other pairs having sex – and giving the males Viagra. Some handlers have claimed success with the videos, but pandas in the wild are solitary creatures, with limited opportunities to observe the behavior of other adults, and many scientists doubt that they engage in social learning.
The D.C. zookeepers try a number of tactics to unite Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, including constructing some obstacles designed to make the two literally trip into each other (no National Zoo employees, however, go quite so far as some Chinese handlers who only approach pandas in captivity while donning actual panda suits).
Long story short, none of it works, and this little guy born Aug. 23 (gender still unknown) was ultimately created through artificial insemination, which is a whole other story.
As Owen writes, one-sixth of the world's estimated 2,000 pandas are currently in captivity, where zookeepers and researchers are trying to keep their gene pool alive for the future day when the species may stabilize back in the wild. "Captive breeding," as Owen puts it, "is a way of buying time while the Chinese sort out their feelings about a number of environmental issues, including habitat destruction."
Top image of a giant panda at a refuge for baby pandas in the Sichuan province of China: Stringer/Reuters