MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Okay, so you know that old saying, I wouldn't blah, blah, blah, even if you were the last guy on earth? Well, what if you pretty much were the last guy on earth? Just about 2,500 giant pandas remain in the wild, so zoos are trying to get these animals to breed in captivity. The Smithsonian's National Zoo has two giant pandas, one female and one male. And when it comes to pandas mating, attraction is key. But it turns out, it isn't quite enough.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Back in February, environmental reporter, Sabri Ben-Achour headed over to the zoo to see how the pandas were, you know, performing.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
Step into the panda center at Smithsonian's National Zoo and you'll see a wall of computer screens.
MR. DAVID MCKEE
If the big event happens, we will have cameras.
David McKee is a volunteer at the zoo and the big event, televised live over the web, is panda mating. Panda's Mei Xiang, that's the female, and Tien Tien, that's the male, are on loan to the U.S. from China. They are here for several reasons, to help China-American relations, to learn more about the species, but really the main reason is to get these two bears to reproduce. So when mating season comes around, all eyes are on the pandas.
MS. BRANDIE SMITH
People are sleeping here at the Panda House and we are monitoring those pandas 24 hours a day.
Brandy Smith is a senior curator at the National Zoo. She says they have to watch these two pandas because, basically, they're really bad at getting intimate. Like, really, they are terrible.
Our pandas are rather interesting. They can't quite get the positions right. So Mei Xiang -- we call it pancaking. She kind of lies flat on the floor instead of having her posterior up in the air and a male, who was very experienced we would hope, would come in and he would kind of help lift her up to get her in the right position. Tien Tien doesn't do that very well. And instead Tien Tien comes over and he actually kind of steps on her so he helps kind of keep her in that pancake position. And then, as you might imagine, attempts at breeding with him just stepping on her, aren't really that successful.
In the wild, Smith says, other pandas can teach Tien Tien and Mei Xiang how not to screw everything up, if you will. But they don't have that here. So the zoo keepers let the pandas try it on their own and when they inevitably fail because they're so terrible, the keepers step in and use artificial insemination. But they only have one shot because Mei Xiang is really just not into it very often. They can only, like, do it once a year?
Yes, the panda breeding season -- it's an annual breeding season, one time a year. And it's very brief. So for our pandas is a day a year.
So to figure out when that one day is coming near and to make sure they have all the artificial insemination equipment at the ready, the keepers have to watch, constantly. Smith holds up a map.
So this is actually a urine map of the panda habitat. So during the breeding season, every time Mei Xiang pees, we collect it.
They analyze the urine for changes in hormones to know when Mei Xiang's day is coming. Tien Tien is very interested as well.
He's smelling her. He actually tastes her urine to evaluate the hormones that are in there. We look at urine to see the hormones and when she's ready for breeding. Tien's incredibly sensitive and he knows exactly that moment in time when she should be bred.
And finally, the big day arrives.
The female panda has certain behaviors that occur, no other time during the year except for that day when she bleats, kind of makes noise that says that she's in the mood. One of my favorite is that she'll lift up her tail and she walks backwards showing the male panda that she's ready and letting them know that she's available.
So after the pandas fail miserably at sex and the zookeepers have to step in and take charge, things go pretty much back to normal. The volunteers go home, nobody sleeps at the zoo, but it's not over. It'll take four to six months for them to know if Mei Xiang's actually pregnant.
Giant pandas go through either a pregnancy or a pseudo pregnancy. So the physiological changes her body goes through and the behavioral changes that she goes through, are exactly the same whether she's actually pregnant or just going through a pseudo pregnancy.
So far, only one cub has been born at the zoo, Tai Shan in 2005. And now that's he back in China, the keepers are quite eager to once again hear the pitter patter of little paws. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.
In case you're wondering how all this panda priming turned out, well, everyone is still waiting with bated breath over at the zoo. No pregnancy announcements just yet despite weekly ultrasounds. Zoo officials say, it's actually possible, they may not know if a cub is on the way for quite a while. So stay tuned.
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