'Bei Bei' the giant panda cub makes public debut at National Zoo

Sat Jan 16, 2016 3:22pm EST
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(Reuters) - A nearly five-month-old giant panda made his public debut on Saturday at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, where he mostly slept through visits by dozens of tourists eager for a first glimpse at the pudgy cub.

Bei Bei was born on Aug. 22 to the zoo's Mei Xiang, one of the top tourist draws in the U.S. capital. The panda exhibit had been closed to the public since the birth in order to give the mother and cub time to bond, zoo officials said.

Laurie Thompson, the zoo’s panda biologist, carried Bei Bei from a small enclosure to the roomier Panda House, which is filled with bamboo and toys, early on Saturday for public viewing. The interaction, in which a sleepy Bei Bei curled into a ball on the ground upon being placed in the exhibit, could be seen in a video posted to social media. 

What appeared to be hundreds of visitors, some dressed in panda costumes, lined up outside the zoo for viewing. They could be heard cheering and shrieking with excitement when doors opened at 9 a.m. local time. Viewing will end at 4 p.m., the zoo said in a statement.

"The amount of time Bei Bei will be on exhibit each day will depend on his behavior," it said.

Bei Bei can be watched in his enclosure via the zoo's online Giant Panda Cam.

Bei Bei weighs 12.5 pounds (5.7 kg), up from about 5 ounces (140 grams) three months ago, the zoo said in November. He is larger than both his older siblings, Bao Bao and Tai Shan, were at his age.

A second cub born with Bei Bei died shortly after birth. They were sired by Tian Tian, the zoo's male giant panda, using artificial insemination.

Giant pandas are native to China and have a very low reproductive rate, especially in captivity. There are about 300 giant pandas in captivity and some 1,600 in the wild.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)