The National Zoo might find out anytime now whether it’s getting another giant panda cub. But the suspense could just as easily continue for the next 10 days.
Zoo officials say they're still unable to determine whether Mei Xiang is pregnant after she was artificially inseminated in early April. She and another panda went on loan to the Washington zoo in 2000 under the terms of a 10-year, $10 million agreement with China.
Based on the panda’s hormone readings, a cub could be born anytime between Friday and July 16, the zoo said. Mei Xiang is also exhibiting the nesting behavior of an imminent mother. But pandas can have false pregnancies, said Pamela Baker-Masson, a spokeswoman for the National Zoo.
"She could do the same exact thing, her hormones will rise, and in fact it’s a pseudo pregnancy," Baker-Masson told MSNBC.
She said the zoo’s staff has gone into a “24-hour watch,” with constant video monitoring of Mei Xiang's condition and hormonal as well as ultrasound testing. Nevertheless, the mystery could continue right up to the moment of birth.
“A cub is so tiny — almost the size of a stick of butter at birth,” Baker-Masson said. “It's very hard to tell.”
She noted that a similar sense of uncertainty was in the air two years ago, just before Mei Xiang gave birth to Tai Shan, the zoo's first surviving panda cub. That birth, which also involved artificial insemination, attracted international attention.
This time around, the uncertainty could end with similar hoopla. On the other hand, the seeming pregnancy could merely fizzle out, signaled only by further shifts in hormone levels. Or it could end in miscarriage. That's what happened last month in the case of Ya Ya, a 6-year-old panda on loan from China to the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee.
This report includes information from The Associated Press and MSNBC.