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Nation

National Zoo plans debut of panda cub

| Thursday, Sept. 22, 2005

WASHINGTON -- The National Zoo hopes to put its giant panda cub on public view in November, probably before Thanksgiving, and plans to ease the expected crush of visitors by handing out timed-entry tickets to the Panda House.

A specific date for the male cub's debut will be announced once zoo officials see how first-time mother Mei Xiang is adapting. For now, the Panda House remains closed, although Mei Xiang has started venturing out on her own to a yard where the public can see her, along with her mate, Tian Tian.

"We want to make sure she is comfortable with additional noise and additional traffic in the Panda House," zoo spokeswoman Peper Long said. There could be a delay in letting the public see the baby panda, she added, if the mother "is too stressed or agitated to bring the cub out to the exhibit area."

The cub, born July 9, will be named before he meets the public. A contest to dub the cub ends next Friday, and officials will announce the winning name Oct. 17. About 143,000 votes have been cast in an online contest sponsored by Friends of the National Zoo.

Officials said the timed-entry tickets to see the cub will help people plan their trips to the zoo and help control the flow of visitors. Long said it is the first time the zoo has used such a system, though the practice is standard for popular exhibits at other Smithsonian Institution facilities.

The giant panda cub -- the first born at the zoo -- was the size of a stick of butter at birth but now weighs about 10 pounds and measures nearly two feet from head to tail. The zoo's live, 24-hour Panda House webcam has had more than 3.3 million visits as fascinated animal lovers have tracked the cub's growth and watched him develop the distinctive black and white markings that have made this endangered species the rock star of the captive-animal world.

Lisa Stevens, an assistant curator whose responsibilities include the Panda House, said keepers and other care staff are encouraged that Mei Xiang seems at ease with people working around her, including maintenance employees who have returned to the building. She also seems to have adjusted to the noise from the nearby construction of Asia Trail.

The care staff is watching to see whether Mei Xiang shows any interest in moving the cub from her den to the exhibit area. He is beginning to crawl, in circles, but hasn't started to walk.

"Some females don't move their cubs at all," Stevens said. "We may try moving the cub ourselves to see how she reacts."

At the San Diego Zoo, which has had three cub births, the first cub did not go on public view until it was 6 months old, spokeswoman Yadira Galindo said. The second cub was exhibited after four months because the mother started bringing the cub out of the den.

"A lot of things happened sooner with the second cub because the mom was more experienced," said Galindo, adding that the zoo's most recent cub will probably be exhibited at 4 months old, too.

Two other U.S. zoos, in Atlanta and Memphis, exhibit giant pandas but have not had cub births.

The National Zoo pays China $1 million a year in privately raised funds -- plus $600,000 for the cub, which is the property of China. The money is earmarked for giant panda conservation efforts.

The birth of the first cub in San Diego generated a huge outpouring of visitors, and Long said the National Zoo is expecting similar excitement. For example, she recently got a call from a woman in Indiana who is planning a trip to Washington, Long said, but "she's not coming until her kid can see the panda."

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