If the youngest giant panda cub at the National Zoo is stressed out about appearing in front of crowds for the first time, he isn't showing it. Keepers were expecting Bei Bei to squawk and squirm during an audience with a small media contingent Monday. Instead, he quickly fell asleep on an exam table, leaving a small puddle of drool on the tablecloth. Panda biologist Laurie Thompson explains that before he went in front of the cameras, Bei Bei was playing with a piece of bamboo and trying to walk. Just like a newborn human, he tires easily. "I'm very proud of him," Thompson says. "This is just the beginning for him as far as people go." Indeed, the cub will make a few appearances before selected audiences ahead of his public debut on Jan. 16, when the panda house will reopen.
Bei Bei weighed just 4 ounces when he was born. Now, at nearly 4 months, he's 17.5 pounds of fur, muscle, claws, and teeth. He's gaining about a pound a week—he's bigger than either of his siblings were at the same age—and is hitting every developmental milestone. Because his ability to reproduce is critically important to the survival of his species, Bei Bei will have to interact with humans frequently. When he turns 4, he'll be sent to China to join the breeding program there. Zoo staffers hope they'll have another young panda to care for by that time: Bei Bei's mother, Mei Xiang, has given birth to three surviving cubs and is scheduled to be artificially inseminated again in 2017. Until then, "we have such an incredible opportunity to observe these beautiful endangered species as they grow and develop," Thompson says. "Every day is a treasure."