Washington, D.C. is once again in the grip of panda-monium. The Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) conduct a vigil in three-hour shifts, scrutinizing monitors hooked up to the zoo’s Panda House for telltale signs. “We might see increased activity and decreased eating,” says Clark Miller, a computer consultant who moonlights monitoring the monitors. “She’ll start grooming her genitals. She’ll do nest building, carrying around pieces of bamboo.”
The question that has Washington in its annual agitated state is, of course: Is Ling-Ling, the 265-pound lady wearing the fur coat and black mask, finally in a family way? It’s hard to tell with pandas. “You don’t see anything,” says Dr. Devra Kleiman, assistant director for research and educational activities at the zoo, “because they give birth to a baby that’s four ounces—about like a stick of butter on an animal that size.” Pandas can breed for just a few days once a year, and it is believed the gestation period is anywhere from 97 to 168 days. Hormone levels don’t change until the fertilized embryo has taken root in the uterus, which does not occur until six to eight weeks before the blessed event. Though there has been no hormonal change to date, Kleiman does not seem particularly worried. “Wait until the end of the month,” she says. “Then I’ll be concerned.”
There is no question that Ling-Ling, 14, has mated. In fact, FONZ volunteers began anticipating a new arrival on March 19 (more than 120 days ago) when they saw Ling-Ling bed down with Hsing-Hsing, 13, not once but twice. The first time came at 8:18 a.m., after which the couple lay in the grass, seemingly dead to the world. Refortified by a late breakfast, which included apples, carrots, rice and sweet potatoes, they returned for a second roll in the bamboo at precisely 1:08 p.m.
The relationship between Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing dates back to their arrival in the U.S. in 1972. At the behest of Chinese Premier Chou En-lai they’d been plucked from the wilds of central China and presented to the National Zoo to commemorate President Nixon’s famous visit. The pandas received star treatment from their first day in Washington, when they were ensconced in a plush, centrally air-conditioned $500,000 pad at the National Zoo. Yet stars or not there was pressure on them from the very outset to deliver.
At first it was believed that Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were not mature enough to produce offspring. By 1978 they’d reached the age of panda puberty, but Hsing-Hsing’s amorous advances were amateur at best. Chinese officials, doubtless assuming that the pandas had become fat-cat capitalists, suggested that they were too chubby and that the excess lard was getting in the way. The zoo people promptly put the corpulent couple on a diet, which trimmed off 69 pounds between them, but that still failed to spark their ardor.
By 1980 the experts figured the pandas were suffering from a “lack of socialization.” Which is to say that, having been captured as babies, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing had not only failed to see adult pandas in flagrante, but also had never been exposed to that precocious fellow in every bamboo forest who advises his peers on what goes where long before they have the wherewithal. “All kinds of other reasons were suggested,” remembers Kleiman. “Some people said they didn’t mate because we watched them.” Whatever the problem was, zoo officials sensed that nature wasn’t taking its course, so they stepped in and tried artificial insemination. It was at this juncture that the first Pregnant Panda Watch was instituted—alas, without results.
Enter a bounder named Chia-Chia, the male panda from the London Zoo who was transferred to Ling-Ling’s conjugal cage in 1981. The thinking was that one of two things would happen: Ling-Ling would succumb to Chia-Chia’s continental charms, or Hsing-Hsing would be spurred to glory by the mere presence of the interloper. Recalls Kleiman, “I had a gut feeling it wasn’t going to work. All we got was growling from both of them [Ling-Ling and Chia-Chia]—really aggressive growling.” Then the fur began to fly. In fact the London stud so battered Ling-Ling she couldn’t mate in ’81 and was only up to another round of (unsuccessful) artificial insemination in ’82.
At this point it occurred to zoo officials that maybe Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing still didn’t know each other—that they hadn’t, well, courted. They started giving them even more time alone together outside the breeding season. Finally one spring day last year, as the usual gaggle looked on, the fun couple finally got together. The fruit of their union was a hairless 4.7-ounce cub that, sadly, died of pneumonia hours after birth. Ling-Ling was inconsolable. Reports Kleiman, “We couldn’t take the baby away for several hours. Then she was holding anything and everything in her cage, cradling apples and carrots.”
Now a middle-aged panda, Ling-Ling’s biological clock is ticking away her chances at motherhood. This past fall she was afflicted with a dangerous kidney disease; eventually she was cured by antibiotics. Meanwhile, Hsing-Hsing appears to be blissfully free from life-threatening forces. By all accounts his recent success in the sack has done wonders for his self-image. Hsing-Hsing is, Kleiman claims, just one of three pandas in the world with the ability to mate in captivity. Indeed Hsing-Hsing’s aura of newfound confidence seems to have inspired everyone at the zoo. “We’re not going to give up,” says Kleiman, who, sounding not unlike a baseball manager, notes that there’s always next year.