Baby panda makes online debut at US National Zoo

THE WASHINGTON POST – The United States (US) National Zoo’s giant panda cub made its debut recently from the zoo in a five-minute explosion of cuteness confined to a live-stream due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The zoo is closed because of the pandemic and has not said when it will re-open, but animal keeper Marty Dearie introduced a pre-taped tour of the panda habitat followed by a few moments with the main attraction: Xiao Qi Ji.

Zoo officials said viewers would “experience an up-close, real-time look at Xiao Qi Ji as he walks, climbs, tumbles and explores his indoor habitat”. Xiao Qi Ji did not disappoint.

Awakened from a nap, he appeared drowsy at first, but brightened up considerably when Dearie placed a few pieces of boiled sweet potato within reach.

Though he mugged a bit for the camera, Xiao Qi Ji eventually ignored legions of online fans to enmesh himself fully in the sweet potato, smearing it all over a toy and himself. This dedication, Dearie said, is helping the panda cub gain a little more than pound per week.

Five-month-old giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji takes his first bite of cooked sweet potato. PHOTO: SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL ZOO

“Apparently, in order to eat sweet potato we need to stand in it,” Dearie said. Of another acrobatic panda manoeuvre, he added: “There’s nothing like eating your sweet potato upside-down.”

When the potato was gone, Xiao Qi Ji played with toys and battled Dearie in a game of tug-of-war.

Then, it was time to call it a day. Mama Panda was on her way, and Dearie had to make tracks, as animal keepers do not directly interact with adult pandas.

The 21-pound panda turned five months old on January 22. His mother is Mei Xiang and his father is Tian Tian. Experts called Mei Xiang’s pregnancy “a miracle” because at the age of 22, she had a less than a one per cent chance of having another cub.

Zookeepers said the cub is “curious yet cautious” and is trying new foods, including the sweet potatoes. He liked them – a lot.

When the sweet potatoes were put on a piece of bamboo, zookeepers said, he “grabbed the bamboo in his mouth, paused for a moment to take in the new taste, then lay back and licked the remainder. When we offered him more, he wouldn’t stop nibbling on it”.

His main source of nutrition is still his mother’s milk. He may “comfort nurse” until he is 18 months old and often does it in the early morning and at night. By age one, he will start eating more solid foods such as bamboo, carrots, apples and “nutrient-rich biscuits”. Soon he will try fruit and softened biscuits, zookeepers said.