Yang Yang and Lun Lun play at zoo
Ric Feld  /  AP file
Giant Chinese pandas Yang Yang, left, and Lun Lun play at Zoo Atlanta in this 1999 file photo.
updated 3/24/2005 12:57:51 AM ET 2005-03-24T05:57:51

A rare possible panda pregnancy was announced by the top official at Zoo Atlanta on Wednesday. "We have some exciting news," zoo president and CEO Dennis Kelly said at a news conference just outside the panda compound.

"We are soon to go on panda baby watch," he said. "They have not successfully mated naturally, but we had a textbook case of artificial insemination last night."

If a birth occurs, it would be only the third giant panda born in the United States. The baby would be the property of China, which loaned the potential parents to Zoo Atlanta.

Lun Lun, the female of the two giant pandas at Zoo Atlanta, spent the announcement time sleeping away, but the male, Yang Yang, was on public view, ignoring a crowd of children watching as he munched on a big pile of bamboo.

A birth could be expected between early June and August if Lun Lun is pregnant, said Dwight Lawson, who heads Zoo Atlanta's animal program and research. He said it would be a few days or a week before officials would know if the artificial insemination worked.

"We have a lot of confidence we pinpointed her fertility cycle," Lawson said.

The only two previous pandas born in the U.S. were at the San Diego Zoo — the last being Mei Sheng two years ago and the first being Hua Mei in 1999. Hua Mei gave birth to twins last September, seven months after she was returned to China.

"It's a big deal when we have a panda birth in the United States," Lawson said.

Lawson says there's every reason to believe the process will produce a cub.

"We were able to get a phenomenal sperm sample from Yang Yang," he said.

He said it panda cubs are so small it's difficult to see one in the womb until just before a birth.

If twins should be born, Lawson said zookeepers would take care of one of them, perhaps alternating cubs with the mother.

"The female only takes care of one cub, but nobody can do a better job of taking care of that cub than mom," Lawson said.

The two Zoo Atlanta pandas are about 7 years old. Yang Yang weighs about 300 pounds, about 70 pounds more than Lun Lun.

Zoo officials had hoped the pair would mate, but weren't surprised they didn't.

"We've got two inexperienced young animals," Lawson said. "It takes a while for them to figure out what they need to do. The female is receptive to the male only two or three days a year."

He said baby pandas are so small, "about the size of the palm of your hand. They's why it's so difficult to detect when she's pregnant."

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