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Baby panda: A future we can believe in

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
updated 11:59 PM EDT, Mon September 17, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mike Ahlers: The birth of a baby panda is more than just a unique addition to the National Zoo
  • He says amid partisan politics and economic woes, a baby panda adds a new perspective
  • Ahlers: It is the perfect birth for our imperfect times

Editor's note: CNN Aviation and Regulation Producer Mike M. Ahlers is based in Washington.

Washington (CNN) -- He, or perhaps she, is described as "hairless," "pink," "wiggly," "the size of a stick of butter" and "very vocal."

In other words, beautiful! For a panda.

The National Zoo's joyous announcement Monday of the birth of a still-nameless panda is giving Washington something to celebrate. Here, in the city that is just coming off a blazing hot summer and entering the quadrennial exercise in self-immolation we call a presidential election, the birth of a panda is giving the city something else to talk about.

Panda birth in Washington: 'We are thrilled'

The 4-ounce baby, the second offspring of Mei Xiang (pronounced may-SHONG), is believed to be the first birth in this city that wasn't used by politicians as a grim reminder of the future cost of college tuition, or by government actuaries to recalculate the pending bankruptcy of the Social Security trust fund.

It is the perfect birth for our imperfect times.

A zookeeper was the first to recognize the momentous occasion was at hand.

Pandas are notoriously difficult to impregnate, because of a very short fertility period. And scientists often must wait until a baby is born before they can confirm efforts at artificial insemination are successful.

The zookeeper, listening to a monitor, "heard the vocalizations of the cub," Brandie Smith, a senior curator at the zoo told reporters Monday. "And she immediately called (another of the zoo's panda keepers) to confirm... And they called me as well. And the three of us kind of sat in front of our computer screens in our individual houses about 11 o'clock last night going, 'Did you hear that?' 'Did you hear that?!' 'Did you hear that!?'

"And once we confirmed that, yes indeed, it really was a cub, once our kind of disbelief and our incredible job and elation, we overcame that, and we started calling everyone and bringing them in."

Another curator checked the videotape to see if it had recorded the moment of birth.

"We didn't see the cub come out, but we saw her reaction and it was that kind of (the) 'Aaaaah!' reaction that she had when she had (her first baby in 2005)," Smith said. "And fortunately she was a great mother this time and she turned around immediately, picked at that cub, cradled it and took care of it right away."

Zoo officials have pronounced Mei Xiang a fit, loving and caring mother.

"She's such a fantastic mother," said panda keeper Nicole MacCorkle. "She did a wonderful job with (her other cub) and we're confident she'll do a great job again this time. It's great to see her with a cub tucked under her chin like she did so many years ago and it's great, for the zoo, it's great for all of us that have been around with her for so long."

For now, the baby is nameless. The zoo says it will follow the Chinese tradition of naming the panda 100 days after it is born.

Zoo officials predict attendance will increase by a half-million people this year because of the panda.

For Washington, and for a nation desperate for unity, it is the perfect election-year gift.

Pandas are tri-racial (being both black and white and Asian in origin), non-denominational, and non-partisan, evoking neither the size of Republican elephants nor the temperament of Democratic donkeys. As an added bonus, scientists at the zoo still have not determined the sex of the baby, making discussion of gender equality pointless. It is, in short, the perfect baby for our times.

There is, of course, that whole U.S.-China thing. But for now, that will have to wait.

People here are just happy waiting for their chance to see a hairless, pink, butter-stick baby.

And hope that uptick in stuffed panda bears bring us out of our national doldrums.

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