Recently I've discovered the Atlanta Zoo Panda Cam, which is a set of cameras in the enclosure of Lun Lun, their adult female panda. Lun Lun made headlines a few weeks ago on July 15 when she delivered twin male cubs, currently named Cub A and Cub B. Twins aren't all that uncommon in pandas but what is unusual is for both cubs to survive. But the panda team in Atlanta has done a fabulous job of taking care of both infants, swapping them in to a apparently oblivious Lun Lun so that both were fed and cared for by their mother. This has been so effective that neither cub has needed supplemental formula since the first day, and both are thriving on just their mother's milk.
Baby pandas are born tiny, hairless, pink, and are about the size and weight of a stick of butter. They grow very fast and at three months have fur, their eyes are open and they seem to be size of a large cat. Both cubs are learning how to get their legs under them so that they can learn to walk. In a lot of ways watching the infant cub on the panda cam is like watching a human baby scooting about a playpen.
But then mom will show up, pick up the baby and cradle it in her arms, licking him and directing him to nurse. When they were first born she'd hold whatever cub she had close to her body. Now that they are bigger she leaves them alone in her nest area for fairly long periods of time while she's eating or relieving herself. Since pandas eat a lot of bamboo which doesn't digest well, they defecate up to forty times a day. While mom is doing her business, the cub tends to sleep.
So what are the lessons I've learned?
1. Being a good mom means spending time with your offspring when they need it. Lun Lun is a great mom as her thriving cubs demonstrate, particularly since they are sharing her time.
2. Experience helps. These are cubs four and five for Lun Lun so she's had plenty of practice taking care of a cub. That shows in how comfortable she is when one of them is with her.
3. Even the best mom needs to take a break. Lun Lun will pick up her cub, cradle it, let it feed, then leave it alone to sleep while she eats. Sometimes she'll even take a nap elsewhere in her den while he's asleep, although you frequently see her napping curled around her baby.
4. Sleep is very important. Baby pandas sleep a lot. So do momma pandas, particularly after giving birth. Their days seem to consist of one nap after another.
5. Even superstar moms need help sometimes. There is a video on the website of Lun Lun giving birth to her twins. The first one came out and she immediately picked it up and began cuddling and licking it.
But then less than a minute or so later, another baby popped out and was squirming all over the nest, crying, and you could almost see Lun Lun's face going "WTF? Where did YOU come from?" Shortly afterwards one of the zoo staff showed up in the doorway and the video ended so we can assume that they fetched the extra cub at that time and took it to the nursery. Since then only one cub has been with her at a time.
Most of the time both twins won't survive because the panda mom needs to spend so much energy in keeping just one alive she can't manage the second. But by having staff to take care of one baby, all Lun Lun had to do was deal with whatever cub she had at the moment.
To me what this means is that we all can use extra help if it means the best outcome. And seeing those two cute little cubs surviving is one of the better outcomes I've seen in a long time.