Reuters

The National Zoo may have an adorable new cub, but it was no simple feat.

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.

The giant panda cub born August 23 at the National Zoo, photographed by Courtney Janney, Smithsonian's National Zoo. Look how happy he is!

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.

Screen gab from the National Zoo's panda cam footage.

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

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Design

    The Rivers of the U.S., Collected Into a Nifty Subway Map

    A designer who spent his youth floating on rafts has conjured up a delightful transit guide to America’s waterways.

  2. Transportation

    5 Reasons to Be Wary of Elon Musk's Hyperloop

    High-speed vactrains might be the ticket for a Martian colony. As a practical transit investment for Earth, the technology has a long way to go.

  3. A woman works in a store that has a sign indicating it is going out of business, in Nogales, Arizona
    Life

    How Cities Can Save Small Shops

    Some places are already taking action, but New York City is lagging behind. Here’s a blueprint for keeping local retail healthy.

  4. The Salk Institute, near San Diego
    Design

    This Is Your Brain on Architecture

    In her new book, Sarah Williams Goldhagen presents scientific evidence for why some buildings delight us and others—too many of them—disappoint.

  5. Equity

    Why Some Women Don't Actually Have Privacy Rights

    A law professor explores the reasons why women who need government assistance are forced to divulge intimate details of their lives.