The public debut of the National Zoo's giant panda cub will be delayed until at least December because he is not venturing out of his hidden den and his mother does not appear willing to let him do so, animal park officials said yesterday.
Although the black-and-white bear now resembles a toddler more than an infant and has been walking short distances on all fours, zoo spokeswoman Peper Long said officials have "pretty much decided" that he will not go on public display in mid-November, as previously announced. Now, they are looking at going public in December.
"He is not even coming out of the den yet," Long said. "She is not letting him out for any time at all."
The cub, born July 9, has been outside his den in the Panda House only for medical examinations. Keepers twice tried to put him in a more public area of the Panda House, but mother Mei Xiang quickly dragged him back to the den. When her cub crawls around, she sometimes pulls him close to prevent him from moving too far away. The den can be viewed only via closed-circuit camera, and zoo officials do not want to invite the public into the Panda House until they are sure the cub will be out for more than a few minutes.
Long said keepers do not think Mei Xiang is being overprotective. The cub has "just started to walk, so I don't think there's any concern that she's not nudging it out the door," Long said.
If the cub goes on display in December, he will be 5 months old. The first giant panda cub born in San Diego, Hua Mei, was about the same age when she made her public debut in February 2000. The zoo plans to offer timed-entry tickets to people wanting to see the cub.
Yesterday, the cub had his eighth medical exam. He weighed in at 12.7 pounds, compared with 1.82 pounds at his first checkup Aug. 2. He measured 25.5 inches from head to tail, compared with 12 inches at the first exam. Veterinarian Suzan Murray ran her gloved hand over his gums and found that he now has teeth: All four canines and 12 incisors have erupted through his gums, though not all are fully grown in.
The cub eventually will have 42 teeth, Long said. Unlike with human babies, teething does not appear to make him uncomfortable, she said.
Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton was on hand for yesterday's examination, along with officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which regulates giant panda imports. Mei Xiang and her mate, Tian Tian, came to the zoo in December 2000 on a 10-year loan from China. The cub will be sent to that country sometime after his second birthday.
The cub's name will be announced during a ceremony Monday. It was chosen in an online poll sponsored by Friends of the National Zoo from among five options approved by Chinese officials. In China, cubs are not named until they are 100 days old, when their survival is believed assured.
The Panda House is closed to the public until the cub goes on display, but the outdoor yards are open, and both adults sometimes can be seen there.