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If the youngest giant panda cub at the National Zoo in Washington is stressed out about appearing in front of crowds for the first time, he is not showing it.
Keepers thought that Bei Bei (pronounced BAY BAY) would squawk and squirm in front of an audience with a small news media contingent Dec. 14. Instead, he quickly fell asleep on an examination table. He left a small puddle of drool on the tablecloth.
Panda biologist Laurie Thompson explained that before he went in front of the cameras, Bei Bei was playing with a piece of bamboo. And he was trying to walk. He is just like a newborn human. He tires easily.
"I am very proud of him," Thompson said. "Obviously, he was not too bothered by all the people here. This is just the beginning for him as far as people go."
Bei Bei is now ready for his close-up. The cub will make a few appearances before selected audiences ahead of his public debut. That is scheduled Jan. 16. The panda house will reopen then. It is also around the time Bei Bei will be sure enough on his feet that he will get to venture into the outdoor panda habitat for the first time.
Pandas are famously helpless at birth. They are pink. They are hairless and blind. They are about the size of a stick of butter. Bei Bei weighed just 4 ounces when he was born.
He is nearly 4 months old. Now, Bei Bei weighs 17.5 pounds. He is all fur, muscle, claws and teeth. He is gaining about a pound a week. Bei Bei is bigger than either of his siblings were at the same age. He is hitting every developmental milestone.
He is one of four pandas at the Smithsonian's National Zoo. They include his mother, Mei Xiang (may SHONG) and his father, Tian Tian (t-YEN t-YEN). His 2-year-old sister, Bao Bao (Bow Bow) is also at the zoo.
The pandas belong to China. After they turn 4, Bao Bao and then Bei Bei will return to China. They will join the breeding program there.
Giant pandas are endangered. Roughly 1,800 live in the wild. About 350 are in captivity. It means Bei Bei and his sister are being counted on to help continue the species.
Zoo staffers hope that they will have another young panda to care for by the time Bei Bei leaves. Mei Xiang has given birth to three surviving cubs. The zoo hopes that she can give birth again in 2017.
Pandas have been the star attraction at the National Zoo for decades. China first gave the United States a pair of the black-and-white bears. The gift came after President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China. That was in 1972. Efforts to breed them in captivity were long met with frustration. But the survival rate has improved a lot in the past 20 years.
Bei Bei appeared for nearly 30 minutes before reporters and photographers. His keepers and veterinarians stroked Bei Bei's thick, bristly fur. He protested only when they tried to open his mouth. They wanted to count his teeth.
The intensely hands-on approach the zoo takes with Bei Bei is different from the way most animals are treated there. It is not just because he is cute. His ability to reproduce is critically important to the survival of his species. So Bei Bei will have to interact with humans often.
"He is in for a life that is very hands-on. Especially when he goes back to China," said Brandie Smith. She is the zoo's associate director of animal care sciences. "Our goal is to make him very comfortable in this kind of situation."
For the zoo staff, the tension and sleepless nights that accompanied Bei Bei's first weeks of life have been replaced by the joy of watching him grow.
"We have such an incredible opportunity to observe these beautiful endangered species as they grow and develop," Thompson said. "Every day is a treasure."
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why hasn't Bei Bei been put on public display yet?
Write your answers in the comments section below