Panda Cam Panders to Panda Fans

The National Zoo's male giant panda cub on August 25, 2005.

The National Zoo's male giant panda cub as seen via 'Panda Cam' on Aug. 25, 2005. hide caption

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Washington's newest political star weighs less than five pounds and still sleeps with his mom. The giant panda cub at the National Zoo is too small for visitors, but he can be seen on 'Panda Cam.'

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You know, when you become a new parent, you might spend hours gazing at your newborn, marveling as the baby sleeps, stretches or even yawns. NPR producer Kitty Eisele knows this feeling.

KITTY EISELE reporting:

OK. I get it now. I understand. I wasn't in the club before, but now I'm up late and I'm not sleeping and I'm watching him do everything for the first time. It's the first time he scratched his nose, the first time he stretched his legs, the first time he rolled over. After so much waiting, he's finally arrived and I can't stop staring. He is a miracle. He's our panda. And like much of my city, I am mesmerized watching him on my computer on panda cam.

(Soundbite of panda)

EISELE: We've waited 33 years for that squeal here in Washington, a squeal it is, yes, hard to hear because it's over the computer. This city has been hoping for a baby panda since Nixon was president, and since he's too small to visit in person, we need to see that he's OK.

(Soundbite of panda)

EISELE: When the first pandas came to America in 1972, they came to Washington and school kids around my city went nuts. We got red Chinese flags and practiced calligraphy with fat black paintbrushes. We traced our hands on our lunch bags and compared their size to giant panda paws. We did math with an abacus and memorized how much pandas weighed and how much bamboo they ate each day. Then we went to hot shops and tried to eat our own weight in panda sundaes.

In a city that had lost its baseball team, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing became our all-stars, something we could be proud of when our relatives came to visit. We had the only pandas in the country, but our pandas couldn't make new pandas and every mating season they broke our hearts. Spring after spring of pregnancies, miscarriages, stillbirths. At a certain point, you realized it wasn't going to happen.

This first couple was allowed to age gracefully but their star status dimmed. Ling-Ling died while I was away from Washington, but when Hsing-Hsing went, I was working here at NPR and I had to write his obituary. This dean of the Chinese diplomatic corps spent his last days snacking on blueberry muffins from Starbucks. In the meantime, lots of other zoos in America were getting pandas and Washington was left with nothing. No baseball team now, no pandas.

Five years ago, China sent us a new couple, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. They weren't the originals and we were paying China a lot more money for their company, but then it happened. Mei Xiang surprised everyone last month with a tiny bundle the zoo said was the size of a stick of butter. The blogs christened him Butter Stick(ph), but now at seven weeks, he's exploded in size and zookeepers say he's built like a Tonka truck. He moves like one, too, and I am transfixed watching him on my computer. This sturdy little cub wriggles and squeaks when Mei Xiang tries to hold him. So she turns him upside down and licks him and he wriggles again. Then they roll around and take a nap. It's hypnotic. People at work are hiding their panda cams behind spreadsheets and e-mails, leaving the sound up so they can hear when something's happening.

(Soundbite of panda)

EISELE: There is something unsettling about all, this observing these intimate moments from a cubical at work, but we already have so much invested in this cub we want to see him make it and there's a whole new generation of school kids in Washington ready for panda Sundays.

(Soundbite of panda)

INSKEEP: When she's not watching panda cam, Kitty Eisele is a producer at NPR. We should note that this summer the pandas at the San Diego Zoo also produced a cub and Washington this year got a baseball team. If you want to get your panda fix, you can go to npr.org and find a link to the panda cam.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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