US national zoo awaits birth of pandemic panda cub
Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

Zookeepers at Washington's National Zoo are on furry blackand-white baby watch, after concluding that venerable giant panda matriarch Mei Xiang is pregnant and could give birth this week. It's a welcome bit of good news amid a pandemic that kept the zoo shuttered for months. "We need this! We totally need this joy," said zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson. "We are all in desperate need of these feel-goods." Although so-called "phantom pregnancies" are common with pandas and other large bears, Baker Masson said an ultrasound scan revealed a "really strong-looking, fantastic fetus" that could be delivered this week. "The image was great. She is absolutely pregnant. But things could still happen, just like in a human pregnancy," Baker Masson said.

The zoo posted a video from the ultrasound on Instagram. "Keep your paws crossed!" the zoo posted, reporting that the fetus was "kicking and swimming in the amniotic fluid." The announcement of the pregnancy has already touched off a fresh round of panda-mania for one of the zoo's feature attractions. Viewership on the zoo's panda-cam has increased 800 per cent. The zoo reopened on a limited basis on July 24, with restrictions in place to keep the crowds down.

However, all indoor exhibits, including the extremely popular panda house, have remained closed. Visitors can still view the outdoor panda enclosure, but Mei has mostly been staying indoors, creating a nest out of branches. Panda births are inherently tricky, with stillbirths and miscarriages happening frequently. There is also a phenomenon called "resorption" whereby the fetus is unexpectedly absorbed back into the mother's body. Baker-Masson said that is rare with a fetus this well-developed.

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