In dark times like these, we all need hope. And it looks like giant panda Mei Xiang could deliver some shortly in the form of a bouncing bundle of furry joy.
The 22-year-old pregnant panda at Washington's Smithsonian National Zoo could give birth as soon as this week, and a huge bump in views to the institution's panda-cams suggests wild enthusiasm for the pending arrival of a baby member of the threatened species.
"In the middle of a pandemic, this is a joyful moment we can all get excited about," Don Neiffer, chief veterinarian at the National Zoo, said in a statement. "We are optimistic that very shortly she may give birth to a healthy cub or cubs."
Neiffer performed an ultrasound on Mei Xiang on Monday that showed her fetus kicking and swimming in the amniotic fluid, as well as a clearly visible spine and blood flow. If you've never seen a panda ultrasound before, it's a rather remarkable sight.
"Keep your paws crossed," the zoo posted on YouTube. "We're watching her closely and welcome everyone to watch with us on the panda cams." And plenty of people are tuning in, with panda-cam viewership up 800%, the Associated Press reports. If you're on full-tilt panda watch, you can also follow Mei Xiang's progress on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #PandaStory.
Mei Xiang, who has already given birth to three surviving cubs, was artificially inseminated in March with frozen semen collected from her 22-year-old zoo-mate Tian Tian. The two pandas arrived in DC from China on Dec. 6, 2000, and zoo experts have studied them closely to better understand giant-panda biology and conservation. Giant pandas are categorized as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and captive breeding programs have focused on artificial insemination as a way to boost panda numbers.
After closing due to the coronavirus pandemic, the National Zoo partially reopened in July, with standard COVID-19 restrictions like social distancing and required masks in place. The panda house at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat, however, remains closed so Mei Xiang can rest in quiet.
There does remain a "substantial" possibility that Mei Xiang could resorb or miscarry the fetus, the zoo says, but hopefully the mama bear understands how much the world needs cub cuteness right now.
Come through for us, Mei Xiang.
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