Washington zoo ready for Bei Bei's public debut

Bei Bei (AP)
Bei Bei (AP)

Washington - The Washington zoo is bracing for a flood of visitors in the New Year to greet its latest star, Bei Bei, the rare giant panda born in August.

Named by US First Lady Michelle Obama and her Chinese counterpart Peng Liyuan during a state visit in September, Bei Bei now weighs 8kg. 

"We're ready. We know that thousands of people will want to come and see Bei Bei," said Brandie Smith, an associate director of the Smithsonian National Zoo.

On January 16, the zoo will reopen its giant panda enclosure, which has been closed to the public since Bei Bei's birth on August 22.

However, the zoo is allowing in small groups to accustom the tiny ball of black and white fur to visitors, panda keeper Juan Rodriguez said.

Zoo employees have been able to see the infant creature, and dozens of journalists were invited on Wednesday for Bei Bei's media debut.

Admission to the zoo is free, but dues-paying members will get exclusive access to Bei Bei in early January before the Panda House reopens to the general public.

Bei Bei is the son of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, female and male giant pandas on loan to the zoo by China.

The panda's birth was the result of artificial insemination, a delicate affair because females are fertile only once a year for no more than two days, said Pierre Comizzoli, the veterinarian in charge.

Mei Xiang actually gave birth to twins, but one died of pneumonia after just a few days. Bei Bei is in perfect health, and should follow in the footsteps of his older sister, Bao Bao, who became the darling of the zoo after her birth in 2013, caretakers said.

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