The adorable baby pandas from Zoo Atlanta being playful.

Panda twins highlight Zoo Atlanta’s baby boom

Some babies are easier to care for than others.

The giant panda twins at Zoo Atlanta, born July 15, needed changing every hour.

We’re not talking about diapers here. Instead, the veterinarians at the zoo were obliged, every hour, to reach into a cage with Lun Lun, the mother bear, take away one infant, and hand her the other one.

Taking a cub away from a 237-pound mother bear is a delicate operation.

“It’s a bear,” pointed out Rebecca Snyder, Zoo Atlanta’s curator of mammals. “You do have to be careful about it, and not make light of it.”

It was, in fact, a dangerous operation, but the infants’ lives depended on it.

Without the skillful zoo personnel regularly switching the cubs so that they could take turns nursing, one would have starved to death. That is generally what happens when panda twins are born in the wild — one usually dies, because for the first few weeks the mother will not set the other twin down, nor pause from nursing to eat or drink.

In this case, Zoo Atlanta fooled Mother Nature. The result: two healthy 5-pound cute-bombs. According to Snyder, it is the first time that giant panda twins have survived in the U.S.

Hayley Murphy, director of veterinary services at the zoo, was cautiously optimistic. “We’re happy,” said Murphy, who, with two other veterinarians and a specialist from China, has spent the past two months trading off 12-hour shifts providing round-the-clock care to the two boy cubs. “We’re not at the point where they don’t need a lot of human help, but we’re very pleased.”

As she spoke, she was busy weighing “B” and measuring his cranium, legs, neck, spine and other tiny furry parts. (In keeping with the tradition of their country of origin, the cubs won’t have official names until they are 100 days old. Until then, they are referred to as “A” and “B.”) Assisted by veterinarian technician Sharon Debose, Murphy used what appeared to be a tailor’s tape measure, and called out each measurement as she proceeded.

The two worked in the nursery at the zoo’s Giant Panda Center, where visitors are gowned and their shoes wrapped in sterile booties before they are allowed inside. Debose gently held the cooperative “B,” who looked like a fuzzy football dressed in black and white for a formal masque.

Zoo Atlanta’s veterinarians depended heavily on Deng Tao, a giant panda expert on loan from the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in the Sichuan province of China. Deng has helped raise at least 12 sets of panda twins in China, and carefully tutored the Atlantans in the art of switching one panda for another without disturbing their mother, Lun Lun. (A little sugar cane bribe helps.)

For the past two months, Deng has camped at the panda center, keeping a close eye on the babies at night and sleeping on an inflatable air mattress in the day.

“You have to be very careful with every step you take and everything you do, especially in the first couple of days,” he said.

Like their two older brothers, Xi Lan and Po, the panda twins remain the property of China, and will return to the Chengdu center when they are about 3 years old. Mei Lan, the oldest of Lun Lun’s children, was born in 2006, and he was sent to China in 2010.

Currently the cubs are both getting plenty of nutrition from their mother’s milk, and Murphy isn’t supplementing their diet. They will begin nibbling bamboo at 13 months, but will keep nursing, on and off, for another six months after that.

The zoo has had a baby boom of sorts this year with the arrival of a new rhino calf, two infant orangutans and two baby gorillas.

All the new babies elicit cries of happiness from zoo visitors, but the panda cubs are perhaps the most paralyzingly cute animals yet devised. The pandas will go on display in late fall but are visible online on the “Panda Cam.”

Does Lun Lun recognize the fact that she is nursing two babies, not one? Murphy won’t speculate, but does say that Lun Lun shows no evidence of treating “A” any differently than “B.” They are now of a size that allows them to sleep longer and to endure more time away from their mother, and they are traded out once every six hours.

“Every day that goes by, they grow stronger and more stable,” Murphy said.

Deng said the success in raising these twins is a significant event, and should help the endangered giant panda species as well as China-U.S. relations. “It is important for both sides, not only for Zoo Atlanta and Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, but also for the USA and China,” he said.

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