National Zoo says panda is in labor

WASHINGTON (AP) — Giant panda Mei Xiang is in labor, Washington's National Zoo said Friday.

The Smithsonian-run zoo tweeted Friday afternoon that the panda's water broke had broken and she was having contractions. Zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said in an email that "everyone is just watching" on the panda cams.

Baker-Masson said the panda's water broke at 3:36 p.m. and it could be one to 10 hours before Mei Xiang (may-SHONG) gives birth.

Mei Xiang could be seen on the panda cam with a ball and a kong toy. "She cuddles/cradles them ... All part of her maternal behavior," Baker-Masson said.

The zoo has been on 24-hours-a-day panda watch since Aug. 7.

A Chinese panda expert performed artificial inseminations on Mei Xiang on March 30 after she failed to breed naturally with male panda Tian Tian.

Mei Xiang has given birth to two cubs. Tai Shan was born in 2005; a week-old cub died last September. Mei Xiang had five failed pregnancies before giving birth.

Panda cubs are especially delicate and vulnerable to infection and other illness. The first weeks of life are critical for the cubs as mothers have to make sure they stay warm and get enough to eat.

Last year's birth had come as a surprise, and zookeepers and visitors were devastated by its death days later. A necropsy showed the cub had died from a liver problem.

Washington's pandas are treated like royalty. The zoo was given its first set of pandas in 1972 as a gift from China to commemorate President Richard Nixon's historic visit to the Asian country.