In the summer of 1999, the giant panda team thought female Bai Yun might be pregnant—but because at that time it was difficult to definitively pinpoint pregnancy in pandas, they weren’t sure. They had been on birth watch 24/7 for a couple of weeks when observers noted that it looked like Bai Yun might be in labor. The word spread, and keepers and scientists on the giant panda team hurried to the Giant Panda Research Station to watch Bai Yun via remote camera.
It was standing room only, and so quiet you could hear a pin drop as everyone seemed to be holding their breath. Then Bai Yun moved, seeming to scoop something up, and sat back. There was a murmur of confusion and speculation—was this it? Had the birth happened? Then they heard the squawk, remarkably loud for such a tiny thing. The room erupted in applause and gasps of joy. The San Diego Zoo had its very first panda cub!
Hua Mei grew quickly from that little white baby into a robust, healthy, and rambunctious cub. Each week the staff recorded her vitals, measurements, condition of eyes and ears, motor skills, and tooth development. Most of the time she was quiet and cooperative during these early exams, but occasionally she would make her opinion known with a squawk.
Following Chinese tradition, she was named at 100 days old with a joyful celebration at the Zoo that included the Chinese Consulate. Our Chinese colleagues chose her name, which means “China USA” to honor the important collaboration between the two countries to help save pandas.
In 2002, it was time for the now full-grown panda to return to China. The keepers prepared her well for the trip, which was uneventful—other than her fans missing her! In her new home, Hua Mei was paired with a male, Ling Ling, for breeding and she gave birth to twins in 2004. Both cubs were males, and were hand raised in the nursery, and both grew up healthy. In September 2005, Hua Mei gave birth again—and had another set of twins, this time a male and a female. Over the years, Hua Mei has given birth to nine cubs, including three sets of twins—once again proving her superstar status!
From the excitement of her birth, to all the things she taught us, to her contribution to increasing the giant panda population—Hua Mei is one sensational panda.