National Zoo's Growing Panda Cub Is a 'Very Relaxed Kind of Dude' with a 'Bit of an Attitude'

Amy Eskind
·5 min read

Smithsonian's National Zoo

The tiny panda cub doesn’t have a name yet, but a DNA swab during his first medical exam confirmed: it’s a boy. "Since panda cubs are teeny, teeny, tiny, all of those parts are teeny, teeny, tiny," giant panda keeper Mariel Lally tells PEOPLE. "He was born with a sex it was just we could not physically see what it was."

Born on August 21st at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C., during a fast and easy delivery, the pink, hairless cub that weighed about 4 ounces at birth is now a furball and growing fast. From the tip of his nose to the base of his tail, he measures 20.4 inches long and is now 18.5 inches around his belly. Still less than nine pounds, the little guy is showing a spunkiness.

"He sat very nicely for his distemper vaccine, he sat nicely to be weighed and measured, and then our vet wanted to take a look in his mouth and see if he's got any teeth," Lally says. The cub had other ideas. "He would not open his mouth for the vet," she says. Maybe next time.

"He's definitely got a little bit of an attitude, which is fun for us to see. And we're really excited to see him kind of grow into that personality," she says.

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The keepers noticed he likes to sleep on his back, something his three older siblings didn’t do.

"He’s a very chill guy. We're thinking that he's probably going to be a very relaxed kind of dude," the keeper added.

He’s not completely chill though. "He is very sassy with his mom at times. If she makes too much noise eating or she accidentally bumps into him while he's sleeping, he is not afraid to use his voice and give her a good scream to say, 'Hey, lady, you're being too loud, you are disturbing my sleep.'"

Smithsonian's National Zoo

He’s crawling, using his front paws and dragging the back. Sometimes he scoots across the floor on his big belly and pushes off with his feet. Walking like an adult giant panda should come soon. Momma, Mei Xiang, has had three other cubs, and at 22 years old, she’s one of the oldest giant panda moms on record. She knows what she’s doing. She pushes her cub away and watches him try to get his legs underneath him.

"He’s getting around pretty quickly," Lally says. "His back legs are powerful, and his front legs are too. He’s just got to figure out how to get both moving at the same time."

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Most of the day and night, the cub sleeps, and nurses. Mei Xiang often has to wake him up for feedings. For several weeks, she stayed in a small enclosed den with her baby, keeping him warm and barely eating. Now that he’s fuzzy with fur, he’s better able to regulate his own temperature, so Mom is leaving her cub for up to an hour to go outside and eat her daily 65 pounds of bamboo, leaf eater biscuits, apples, carrots, cooked sweet potato, sugar cane, and the occasional honey snack for a treat. The cub usually sleeps while she’s gone but if he wakes up hungry, he’ll squawk and she’ll come right back. Sometimes, during the day or night, she picks him up by the neck, back, or belly with her mouth and takes him outside for a quick look around. With his eyes wide open, he now observes the outside world.

The mother and cub have no interaction with the giant panda dad, Tian Tian, except through a mesh fence. The zoo always intended to increase the chances of a successful mating by using artificial insemination, but natural mating probably was never in the cards for these two.

"They know each other and we see them interact, but I wouldn't ever call them buddies or anything like that," Lally says. "Definitely not lovers, they never seem to be in sync with one another. He'll be interested in her, then she's finally in that fertility window and she's interested in him, and then he doesn't want her anymore."

These days they look at each other through the double mesh, out of touching distance, because there has been some aggression between them. But Tian Tian did seem to do his part – he kept his rowdy self unusually quiet when the cub arrived.

Smithsonian's National Zoo

Giant panda moms expect their cubs to separate from them permanently around one and a half to two years old, and live a solitary life. Siblings Tai Shan (tie-SHON), Bao Bao (BOW BOW), and Bei Bei (BAY BAY) have all been returned to China, as will this cub by age 4. Their offspring will be raised in a semi-wild enclosure without human intervention and could potentially be reintroduced to the wild. They are part of a breeding program that has been so successful giant pandas are no longer endangered, but still vulnerable.

For now, the zoo’s little cub is learning from mom how to be a giant panda, including how to play like one. “Sometimes it looks like Mei Xiang is chewing on him a little bit. But it's her showing him 'we play with our mouths – we’re bears.'"

The zoo will make an announcement about naming the little bear soon and the cub is expected to make his public debut in early 2021.