Panda followers on social media were reassured on Wednesday that a mother and cub at the National Zoo are doing just fine.
Zoo officials and zookeepers in Washington responded to some observers on Chinese social media that the pandas were “mistreated” following the bear mom’s estrus and the cub’s weaning.
Bei Bei, born in 2015, is doing well after he was weaned from his parents Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who moved to the Smithsonian National Zoo in 2000 under a collaboration agreement between China and the US.
“Everyone is doing great,” Bryan Amaral, senior curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, said of the three bears. He said that Mei Xiang underwent two artificial inseminations last week, and it’s too early to tell if she is pregnant.
There have been reports in Chinese social media that the 18-year-old mother was forced to get pregnant to attract more visitors; that she failed to get enough food; and that there were snakes in her enclosure.
They also said her weaned baby, Bei Bei, was stressed and climbing trees to look for his mother.
“We definitely talked to our Chinese colleagues when we did the artificial insemination,” said giant panda keeper Marty Dearie. “We’ve had a member of the Chinese (counterpart staff) here to assist with that.”
Dearie said the highly cooperative relationship between the two countries has benefited pandas in the zoos in the US, in China and those in the wild.
Animal care staff members have closely monitored Mei Xiang and 19-year-old Tian Tian for any behaviors that would indicate the pair were interested in breeding.
The pandas have exhibited such behaviors “at incongruent times”, so there has been no natural breeding process this season, the zoo said in a statement.
The zoo received approval for its breeding plans from the China Wildlife and Conservation Association and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the statement added.
“We follow the best practices that were established through our Chinese colleagues,” Dearie said.
In addition to concerns from Chinese panda fans, a petition at the US website change.org to reunite Bei Bei with his mother had generated nearly 11,000 supporters as of Wednesday, and Michelle Schmitt-DeBonis, a US resident, has written to China Daily complaining about the pain the pandas have endured due to what she said was “forced separation”.
“We’ve weaned two cubs prior to Bei Bei at 18 months (of age), and they’ve done very well, and so we’ve weaned Bei Bei, and he is as well doing very well,” Dearie said.
“The cub is ready on his own, and the mother is potentially looking to have another baby.”
Laurie Thompson, assistant curator of giant pandas at the zoo, also said the bears are not social animals; they tend to live by themselves.
“So he has to be comfortable finding his own food, occupying his own time seeking out food and doing the things he needs to do,” she said. “He can’t do that if mom is always with him.”
As to the panda mother, Mei Xiang is given around 24 kilograms of bamboo overnight, which is more than enough, Thompson said.
“So the food amount doesn’t change, but during the period of time when she goes estrus (in heat), the male and female reduce their food intake,” she said. “We still give them food, but they just get very restless.”
Pandas naturally encounter snakes in the wild. Besides, the snakes found in Mei Xiang’s closure are not poisonous, so she won’t be harmed, Thompson said.
As many netizens watch the 24/7 panda cameras installed at the zoo, Pamela Baker-Masson, associate director of communications and exhibits, said the zoo couldn’t interpret around the clock to viewers what is happening, which could sometimes cause misunderstanding.
“It will be remarkable if we could have Bryan spend 24 hours interpreting on the panda cam: ‘Now the panda is doing this; now the panda is doing that.’ We are just not able to do that,” she said.
“We believe that the vast majority of our viewers understand and trust that they are doing really, really well in our care.”
The first pair of pandas arrived at Washington 45 years ago. With 12 now living in Washington, Atlanta, San Diego, California, and Memphis, Tennessee, the US has the most giant pandas outside China.
Yuan Yuan in Washington contributed to this story.