Panda cub in Washington is thriving ahead of public debut

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Bei Bei, DC National Zoo Panda
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Panda cub in Washington is thriving ahead of public debut
In this photo taken Dec. 14, 2015, animal keeper Nicole MacCorkle holds Bei Bei, the National Zoo's newest panda and offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, for members of the media at the National Zoo in Washington. The youngest giant panda cub at the National Zoo is ready for his close-up. Bei Bei will make his public debut on Jan. 16. During an audience with a small news media contingent Monday, he was so relaxed that he fell asleep and drooled on an examination table. At nearly 4 months old, Bei Bei weighs more than 17 pounds and is gaining about a pound a week. He's bigger than his older siblings were at the same age. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
In this photo taken Dec. 14, 2015, animal keeper Stacey Tabellario holds Bei Bei, the National Zoo's newest panda and offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, as he is presented to members of the media at the National Zoo in Washington. The youngest giant panda cub at the National Zoo is ready for his close-up. Bei Bei will make his public debut on Jan. 16. During an audience with a small news media contingent Monday, he was so relaxed that he fell asleep and drooled on an examination table. At nearly 4 months old, Bei Bei weighs more than 17 pounds and is gaining about a pound a week. He's bigger than his older siblings were at the same age. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
In this photo taken Dec. 14, 2015, Bei Bei, the National Zoo's newest panda and offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, is presented for members of the media at the National Zoo in Washington. The youngest giant panda cub at the National Zoo is ready for his close-up. Bei Bei will make his public debut on Jan. 16. During an audience with a small news media contingent Monday, he was so relaxed that he fell asleep and drooled on an examination table. At nearly 4 months old, Bei Bei weighs more than 17 pounds and is gaining about a pound a week. He's bigger than his older siblings were at the same age. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
In this photo taken dec. 14, 2015, Bei Bei, the National Zoo's newest panda and offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, is presented for members of the media at the National Zoo in Washington. The youngest giant panda cub at the National Zoo is ready for his close-up. Bei Bei will make his public debut on Jan. 16. During an audience with a small news media contingent Monday, he was so relaxed that he fell asleep and drooled on an examination table. At nearly 4 months old, Bei Bei weighs more than 17 pounds and is gaining about a pound a week. He's bigger than his older siblings were at the same age. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Animal keeper Stacey Tabellario holds Bei Bei, the National Zoo's newest panda and offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, as he is presented to members of the media at the National Zoo in Washington, Monday, Dec. 14, 2015. Bei Bei will be making his public debut on January 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Bei Bei, the National Zoo's newest panda and offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, falls asleep while being presented for members of the media at the National Zoo in Washington, Monday, Dec. 14, 2015. Bei Bei will be making his public debut on January 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
In this photo taken Dec. 14, 2015, animal keeper Stacey Tabellario holds Bei Bei, the National Zoo's newest panda and offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, as he is presented to members of the media at the National Zoo in Washington. The youngest giant panda cub at the National Zoo is ready for his close-up. Bei Bei will make his public debut on Jan. 16. During an audience with a small news media contingent Monday, he was so relaxed that he fell asleep and drooled on an examination table. At nearly 4 months old, Bei Bei weighs more than 17 pounds and is gaining about a pound a week. He's bigger than his older siblings were at the same age. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Bei Bei, the National Zoo's newest panda and offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, is presented for members of the media at the National Zoo in Washington, Monday, Dec. 14, 2015. Bei Bei will be making his public debut on January 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
In this photo taken Dec. 14, 2015, animal keeper Nicole MacCorkle, left, and biologist Laurie Thompson, right, attempt to look at the teeth of Bei Bei, the National Zoo's newest panda and offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, in front of members of the media at the National Zoo in Washington. The youngest giant panda cub at the National Zoo is ready for his close-up. Bei Bei will make his public debut on Jan. 16. During an audience with a small news media contingent Monday, he was so relaxed that he fell asleep and drooled on an examination table. At nearly 4 months old, Bei Bei weighs more than 17 pounds and is gaining about a pound a week. He's bigger than his older siblings were at the same age. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
In this photo taken Dec. 14, 2015, Bei Bei, the National Zoo's newest panda and offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, falls asleep while being presented for members of the media at the National Zoo in Washington. The youngest giant panda cub at the National Zoo is ready for his close-up. Bei Bei will make his public debut on Jan. 16. During an audience with a small news media contingent Monday, he was so relaxed that he fell asleep and drooled on an examination table. At nearly 4 months old, Bei Bei weighs more than 17 pounds and is gaining about a pound a week. He's bigger than his older siblings were at the same age. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Bei Bei, a Giant Panda cub born on August 22, 2015, makes his first media appearance at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC, December 16, 2015. Bei Bei will make his first public appearance on January 16, when the Giant Panda house reopens to the public.  (Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photo taken Dec. 14, 2015, Bei Bei, the National Zoo's newest panda and offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, yawns while being presented for members of the media at the National Zoo in Washington. The youngest giant panda cub at the National Zoo is ready for his close-up. Bei Bei will make his public debut on Jan. 16. During an audience with a small news media contingent Monday, he was so relaxed that he fell asleep and drooled on an examination table. At nearly 4 months old, Bei Bei weighs more than 17 pounds and is gaining about a pound a week. He's bigger than his older siblings were at the same age. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Animal keeper Stacey Tabellario holds Bei Bei, the National Zoo's newest panda and offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, as he is presented to members of the media at the National Zoo in Washington, Monday, Dec. 14, 2015. Bei Bei will be making his public debut on January 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 (BAY BAY) to squawk and squirm during an audience with a small news media contingent Monday. Instead, under bright television lights with cameras clicking, he quickly fell asleep on an examination table, leaving a small puddle of drool on the tablecloth.

Panda biologist Laurie Thompson explained 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 said. "Obviously, he wasn't too bothered by all the people here. This is just the beginning for him as far as people go."

Bei Bei is ready for his close-up. The cub will make a few appearances before selected audiences ahead of his public debut on Jan. 16, when the panda house will reopen. That's also around the time Bei Bei will be sure enough on his feet that he'll get to venture into the outdoor panda habitat for the first time.

See photos from Bei Bei's birth:

18 PHOTOS
Baby Pandas born at Smithsonian
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Panda cub in Washington is thriving ahead of public debut

Mei Xiang in her den with her cub on Sept. 21, 2015. (Photo via Smithsonian's National Zoo)

In this photo provided by the Smithsonian's National Zoo, one of the giant panda cubs is examined by veterinarians after being born at Smithsonian's National Zoo on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015, in Washington. The National Zoo in Washington says its adult female panda has had twins. (Becky Malinsky/Smithsonian's National Zoo via AP) 
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 23: In this handout provided by the Smithsonian's National Zoo, the second of two newborn Giant Pandas born August 22 is cared for by members of the panda team at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute August 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The team is swapping each cub with the mother Mei Xiang, allowing each to nurse, while the other is bottle-fed and kept warm in an incubator. (Photo by Smithsonian's National Zoo via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 23: In this handout provided by the Smithsonian's National Zoo, the second of two newborn Giant Pandas born August 22 is cared for by members of the panda team at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute August 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The team is swapping each cub with the mother Mei Xiang, allowing each to nurse, while the other is bottle-fed and kept warm in an incubator. (Photo by Smithsonian's National Zoo via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 23: In this handout provided by the Smithsonian's National Zoo, the second of two newborn Giant Pandas born August 22 is cared for by members of the panda team at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute August 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The team is swapping each cub with the mother Mei Xiang, allowing each to nurse, while the other is bottle-fed and kept warm in an incubator. (Photo by Smithsonian's National Zoo via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 24: In this handout provided by the Smithsonian's National Zoo, one of two newborn Giant Pandas born August 22 is cared for by a member of the panda team at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute August 24, 2015 in Washington, DC. The team is swapping each cub with the mother Mei Xiang, allowing each to nurse, while the other is bottle-fed and kept warm in an incubator. (Photo by Smithsonian's National Zoo via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 23: In this handout provided by the Smithsonian's National Zoo, the second of two newborn Giant Pandas born August 22 is cared for by members of the panda team at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute August 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The team is swapping each cub with the mother Mei Xiang, allowing each to nurse, while the other is bottle-fed and kept warm in an incubator. (Photo by Smithsonian's National Zoo via Getty Images)
In this handout photo provided by the Smithsonian’s National Zoo shows keeper Stacey Tabellario bottle feeding the smaller of the two giant panda cubs at the zoo in Washington. The zoo said the smaller Giant Panda cub died Wednesday after three and a half days. (Shellie Pick/Smithsonian’s National Zoo via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

Mei Xiang left her den Saturday, Sept. 5, around 3:10 p.m. to eat and drink. She ate more bamboo than she has in previous excursions since giving birth. Keepers expect Mei Xiang to gradually spend more time away from the den eating and drinking as the cub grows. While Mei Xiang was eating, veterinarians and keepers took the opportunity to give the cub another quick checkup. He weighed 409.6 grams, which was 119 grams more than he weighed on Sept. 2. His 297 percent weight gain is normal for a cub his age. Cubs at this stage usually gain between 40 and 50 grams per day. Veterinarians also listened to his heart and lungs, which all sounded normal. His eyes are still closed, which is normal. Cubs’ eyes generally open when they are 6 to 8 weeks old. He also had a full belly at the time of the exam and appeared to be healthy. (Photo via Smithsonian's National Zoo)

Mei Xiang and her cub on Sept. 3. (Photo via Smithsonian's National Zoo)

Mei Xiang sleeping in her den with her cub Sept. 18, 2015. (Photo via Smithsonian's National Zoo)

Mei Xiang left the den around 9 a.m., about 30 minutes after keepers replenished food in her enclosure on Sept. 12. She spent 15 minutes away from the cub, during which time he could be seen on the panda cam scooting around in circles. Keepers noted that the shape of his back saddle, the black marking on a panda’s back, resembles Tian Tian’s, his father. (Photo via Smithsonian's National Zoo)

Keepers weighed the giant panda cub Sept. 14, when Mei Xiang left her den. He weighed 881.5 grams or 1.9 pounds. (Photo via Erika Bauer/Smithsonian's National Zoo)

At a veterinary exam Sept. 17, the cub measured 31 centimeters from his head to the tip of his tail. From his head to the base of his tail he measured 27 centimeters. His right front leg was 10 centimeters long and his right hind leg was 9 centimeters long. Veterinarians reported that he has an excellent range of motion and is able to push up onto his front legs. Keepers have seen him scooting around the den using his front legs, but he is not walking yet. (Photo via Amy Enchelmeyer/Smithosonian's National Zoo)

At a veterinary exam Sept. 17, the cub measured 31 centimeters from his head to the tip of his tail. From his head to the base of his tail he measured 27 centimeters. His right front leg was 10 centimeters long and his right hind leg was 9 centimeters long. Veterinarians reported that he has an excellent range of motion and is able to push up onto his front legs. Keepers have seen him scooting around the den using his front legs, but he is not walking yet. (Photo via Amy Enchelmeyer/Smithsonian's National Zoo)

Zoo volunteer and "big panda fan" Mara Strock wipes her eyes at right while listening to the announcement of the death of one of the new panda cubs during a news conference at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Visitors to the Smithsonian's National Zoo listen during an announcement about the death of one of the new panda cubs during a news conference at the Zoo in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
The Smithsonian National Zoo's Giant Panda Mei Xiang, mother of panda youngster Bao Bao who was born Aug. 23, 2013, sleeps in the indoor habitat at the zoo in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. The zoo says that the hormone levels of its adult female panda were rising, a sign that she might be pregnant. Mei Xiang, one of the two adult giant pandas which arrived here from China on Dec. 6, 2000, has started to show a secondary rise in her urinary progesterone levels since July 20 after she was artificially inseminated on April 26 and 27, the zoo said in a statement. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
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Pandas are famously helpless at birth: pink, hairless, blind, and about the size of a stick of butter. Bei Bei, who was a twin — his brother did not survive — 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.

He's one of four pandas at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, along with his mother, Mei Xiang (may SHONG), his father, Tian Tian (t-YEN t-YEN), and his 2-year-old sister, Bao Bao (Bow Bow). The pandas belong to China, and after they turn 4, Bao Bao and then Bei Bei will return to China and join the breeding program there.

Giant pandas are endangered, with roughly 1,800 living in the wild and 350 in captivity, which means Bei Bei and his sister are being counted on to help perpetuate the species.

Zoo staffers hope that by the time Bei Bei leaves, they'll have another young panda to care for. Mei Xiang, who has given birth to three surviving cubs, is scheduled to be artificially inseminated again in 2017.

Pandas have been the star attraction at the National Zoo since China gave the United States a pair of the black-and-white bears after President Richard Nixon's historic visit in 1972. Efforts to breed them in captivity were long met with frustration, but the survival rate has improved dramatically in the past 20 years.

Throughout his nearly 30-minute appearance before reporters and photographers, keepers and veterinarians stroked Bei Bei's thick, bristly fur, and he protested only when they tried to open his mouth to count his teeth.

The intensely hands-on approach the zoo takes with Bei Bei is different from the way most animals are treated there. It's not just because he's cute. Because his ability to reproduce is critically important to the survival of his species, Bei Bei will have to interact with humans frequently.

"He's in for a life that's very hands-on, especially when he goes back to China," said Brandie Smith, the zoo's associate director of animal care sciences. "Our goal is to make him very comfortable in this kind of situation."

For the zoo staff, the tension and sleepless nights that accompanied Bei Bei's first weeks of life have been replaced by the joy of watching him grow.

"We have such an incredible opportunity to observe these beautiful endangered species as they grow and develop," Thompson said. "Every day is a treasure."

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Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/ben-nuckols

4-Month-Old Giant Panda Bei Bei Sleepily Makes First Public Appearance

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