The observation room

Science Calling in Washington D.C.

Sometimes Angela Wessel wished that she didn’t leave the window open to the inquisitive crowd. That day she was a far more interesting specimen to peer at that than the giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, people had ventured in to see. The zoo volunteer turned from the twelve screens and asked “Any questions?”  To the delight of the passing group, this was an interactive exhibit!

Wessel put her hand on her hip, just below the panda-belt that fastened around her waist-high white shorts. She has been part of the National Zoo’s volunteer program longer than the giant pandas lived there. She joined as a uni student back in 1970, two years before the iconic Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing were gifted at a presidential level. Things were more hands on then with cameras only used during cub season. Two cameras were lent by a local company to observe a birthing Ling Ling in stark contrast to today where every inch is covered. “You were closer to the panda back then, in some ways it was fun.” These cameras are vital to the research she’s conducting today. Every five minutes she marks the card. Sleep/Rest – the female panda is having a nap, Platform – on a table-like concrete shelf in the indoor enclosure. “We’re observing Mei Xiang after what happened last week. I’ll talk to you as long as you don’t disturb my research. Oh, and don’t quote me as a representative of the National Zoo”.

She disappeared into the next room. If I’m in a new city with a few hours to spare, I try to visit the local zoo. Gasps and wows echoed as I walked past exhibits towards the giant pandas that scorching day. All pandas in the US are part of species survival plan programs and federal policy prohibits pandas being brought over solely for exhibit. Giant pandas in the National Zoo have had limited success in captive breeding having only one cub in the past ten years.

Returning with a photo album she recalls her four visits to China and the greater interaction allowed there. Sitting beside a panda. Washing a cub. Mucking out the enclosure. “It’s not all glamour, you know!” Note: Sleep/Rest/Platform. “There are many issues with breeding pandas in captivity. Pandas can only become pregnant during a short window once a year.” Female pandas have only 36 hours to become pregnant during their annual ovulation but their problems don’t end there. Wessel explained to me how it was a mystery that pandas had delayed implantation despite not having a predator present and a plentiful supply of food. They also discovered that resorption of the cub in the womb has occurred in the National Zoo and in Memphis. Note: Sleep/Rest/Platform. “You can’t just take a pregnancy test. Having this chance only once a year, their body acts as if it is pregnant even if it’s not”. She was quick to defend the program she has worked on for 30 years. “China boasts about sixteen new cubs. They don’t broadcast the fact they used the sperm from four males to inseminate 150 females. We only have one pair”.

Other zoos in the US have had more success. With the risk of rubbing salt in old wounds, I ask her about San Diego. Six cubs in the past few years? She sends me a shooting glare. “The minute that panda looks at a female, she’s pregnant”. A laugh slips out. “I’m not joking! He is a wild-born panda and I think that helps”. This got my curiosity going as the 1998 policy states that panda permits cannot be issued for wild-born pandas to prevent new pandas being captured in China. Note: Sleep/Rest/Platform. “He was found beaten up and they took him in. When he was better they released him but he came back beaten up. They fixed him up and released him but he came back. This time he wasn’t beaten up but he thought I can get food and shelter here… why not live the good life”. It seemed the Wolong Panda Conservation Centre had enough of this panda treating their centre like a hotel. “When they heard San Diego needed a male they thought ‘Let’s give them this little guy’. Gao Gao’s new mate, Bai Yun, was pregnant in no time. It turns out he was getting beaten up because he was breeding in the wild.” Wessel smiled for the first time noting a clear win for the US.

She turns back to Mei Xiang’s movements, or lack of. Note: Sleep/Rest/Platform. “It hasn’t been an exciting evening”. Every box in the form has been marked in the same manner. “This time the insemination took. The cub was 2 weeks old. She hasn’t moved much since”. A shout came from behind me, “What happened the baby? Are there two new pandas?” Questions about the cub were on the lips of every passer-by today. “The baby died last Sunday. No, we don’t have any new pandas.” She turned to face the screen, Sleep/Rest/Platform, and continued, “The two pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, have been here for…” As she turned back, the inquirer has disappeared with the group. Every passer-by had the same question. They rushed in, saw Tian Tian’s feet sticking out his door, asked, and then returned swiftly out their door.

This piece was written as part of an assignment for To Think, To Write, To Publish in Washington D.C. At 3pm last Thursday (11th October), we were told to go to whatever part of the city we desired and write a scene by 5am the following morning. I chose the National Zoo as I didn’t get to visit it last time and I was hoping I’d bump into some visitors and staff. It was fairly lucky that such an experienced panda researcher, Angela Wessel, was willing to talk to me. This was an amazing experience as I have never gone somewhere looking for a story with no idea what I might find. The scene I wrote in that short timeframe is far from perfect but I thought I’d put up here as it’s my first attempt at creative non-fiction… perhaps a taste of things to come!
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4 thoughts on “The observation room

  1. Fascinating post, Maria- the immediacy and serendipity of it all! but, as Louis Pasteur said, chance favours those who are prepared…and you were ready to take on anything that came your way. Loving your blog. Congrats on this Think/Write/Publish experience. We can all sleep easier in our beds knowing that science communicators like you are ahead of the creationists.

  2. Great post! I’m a huge fan of a zoo, and it’s so interesting to see the important behind-the-scenes conservation work that they do. Plus baby animals.

  3. Why was Gao Gao getting beaten up for breeding? I though that pandas were solitary so who was he peeving?

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