Canada gets its first giant panda cubs

Earlier this month Er Shun
and Da Mao, the giant
panda pair on loan from
China to the Toronto Zoo,
became the proud parents
of two healthy cubs. Now
zoo staffers and Chinese
experts are working round
the clock to ensure
everything continues to go
smoothly.
Dr. Chris Dutton, the head
of veterinary services at
the Toronto Zoo, says this
year’s success comes on
the back of last year’s
failed attempt. In the
winter of 2013 when the
pair arrived at the zoo,
though conservationists
had determined the two
were an ideal genetic
match, they’d never met.
And when they did, Da Mao
was a little too young to
go about the business
properly, so the team went
to Plan B—artificial
insemination. Things didn’t
take, but clearly Er Shun,
whose name means double
smoothness, was ready
and waiting, experiencing a
pseudo pregnancy, evident
by hormones in her pee.
‘This year we think our
timing was better, but the
proof is in the pudding,’
says Dutton. ‘And we
couldn’t be happier.’ These
are the first giant pandas
born on Canadian soil.
Monitoring Er Shun’s
hormones closely, Dutton
feels the team was more
tightly aligned with the
mother-to-be’s schedule,
inseminating her with both
fresh semen from Da Mao
and frozen samples from
China. The giant panda
mating game is incredibly
time sensitive, and short-
lived. Females only come
into estrus, or heat, once a
year, and it only lasts two
or three days.
Dutton credits the zoo
caretakers for making a lot
of the hands on panda
work easier. ‘Towards the
end Er Shun was having to
lay on a table and let me
ultrasound her belly a
couple times a week,
without much complaint,’
he says. ‘And we had to
sedate her several times
over a 12-hour period
during insemination.’
Dutton says the team
calculated Er Shun’s date
would be October 14, but
the eager mother beat
them to it. Around 1 pm
on the 13th her water
broke and by 3:30 the first
cub had arrived. About ten
minutes later, the second
cub was born. Now the truly tricky part
begins. In the wild, mother
panda’s will usually neglect
the second cub altogether
in cases of twins—putting
everything she’s got into
the first, usually larger,
more dominate cub. To
avoid this scenario, the
two will alternate between
an incubator, provided by
the Toronto Hospital for
Sick Children, and their
mother’s care. Dutton says
Er Shun took to
motherhood right away,
and is easily distracted by
a sweet concoction when
it’s time to switch the
twins.
‘This will continue every
2-3 hours for the next 6
months or more,’ he says.
‘Some staffers are even
sleeping in the panda
house to make sure the
family gets just what they
need.’
He says the second cub is
quite a bit smaller than its
sibling, which could either
be because it developed
slower, or had a different
Daddy.
The cubs will keep growing
at giant panda rates, and
will stick with their mum
for a long time. Dutton
says in the wild they think
it takes the bear’s two
years to fully wean, but
right now Er Shun is likely
just ready for the stage
when she can put them
down. Dutton says he
won’t relax for another few
months either, but adds
the payoff is well worth all
the work.