WASHINGTON — The panda keepers call it “the grab” — a gently choreographed and dangerous procedure in which a newborn giant panda cub is taken from the grasp of its mother for a brief but crucial physical exam.
It’s never been done at the Smithsonian National Zoo, where the female giant panda Mei Xiang gave birth to a cub Friday evening.
On Saturday, a team of keepers, curators and veterinarians tried it for the first time.
The plan was for one keeper to distract Mei with honey, sugar cane and a pear while another keeper took the cub from her and handed it to a veterinarian.
After a quick once-over — a check of weight, length and general health — the cub would be returned to its mother.
The team tried once Saturday morning but couldn’t distract Mei. She sniffed at the pear but stayed focused on the cub, which she kept cradled under her chin.
“It’s not in a position where we feel safe to grab it,” panda keeper Marty Dearie, who was on the grab team, said. The keepers, who were just a few feet from the panda, behind protective bars, backed off. “There is a danger,” he said.
“There always is a danger when you’re around an animal that weighs 240-some-odd pounds and has a jaw that can break a piece of bamboo,” he said. “She is an animal that can cause damage if she needs to.”
In addition, the cub is small and delicate and can neither see nor hear. “We don’t want to startle Mei and make her do something, maybe, to the cub,” he said. So, until everything is perfectly safe, “we just won’t do the grab.”
Plus, “I’ve never grabbed a cub before,” he said.
Dearie said he wore a lab gown and rubber gloves. He said the keepers have protective Kevlar gloves but didn’t plan to use them because they reduce dexterity.
A second attempt in the afternoon also fell short. Dearie said Mei seemed a little more interested in the food and the cub was “still very active, very vocal.”
He said the team will try again today.
The moves came as the zoo and the Washington region were abuzz over the cub’s Friday birth — an event that was broadcast live on the zoo’s new high-definition panda cams.
The cameras captured Mei Xiang’s labor and, at 5:32 p.m., the delivery of the robust, loudly squeaking cub. Dearie said it looked like a small, pink rat covered in white fuzz.
For a time, the zoo kept a vigil for the possible birth of a second cub. Pandas frequently have twins. But about six hours after the birth, the zoo realized that a twin probably wasn’t coming.
Mother and cub were reported to be doing well Saturday. But zoo director Dennis Kelly said, “We’re going to be tense for a while.”
Since the death at the zoo last year of a newborn cub, zoo experts resolved to do an early examination of this cub to head off possible trouble.
The zoo had traditionally avoided such interventions to allow mother and cub to bond naturally. And Mei Xiang did so with her previous cubs: Tai Shan, who was born in 2005, and the cub that died six days after its birth in September.
In Tai Shan’s case, keepers didn’t physically check him for about 30 days, the zoo said. He was sent to a breeding program in China in 2010.
In last year’s emergency, keepers extracted the cub from the panda den with tongs, but Mei was readily distracted and the cub was probably already dead, the zoo said. Dearie was on that team, and he was the one who carried the cub’s body to the veterinarians.
“Based on the fact that last year’s cub had some issues … we just said, ‘You know what? Let’s think about getting our hands on it earlier,’” he said. “The idea is: Let’s just make sure everything’s going really well, and then give it back to her and let her do her thing.”
To prepare, the zoo sent Dearie and fellow panda keeper Juan Rodriguez to a Chinese panda reserve this month to study how the panda keepers there take cubs from their mothers, which they do regularly, the zoo said.
Dearie said they were able to study a dozen pandas with cubs of various ages. They witnessed two births and methods of cub retrieval. “We got to see the things that we are going to put into practice here,” he said.
A major difference in China is that the keepers have “free contact,” in which they enter the panda enclosures to take the cubs. For safety reasons, National Zoo keepers are not allowed to enter the panda enclosures.
Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated last March after natural breeding attempts with the resident male panda, Tian Tian, failed.
“It’s just a thrill,” Dearie said of the birth. “To me, this is the stuff I love — getting to interact with the animals at this level, thinking about how we manage the species, all that stuff. It’s why I love the job.”