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A lot of work goes into Atlanta panda cubs debut
Panda Debut AX601 6426344
In this photo released by Zoo Atlanta, panda cub Mei Lan is examined by veterinary staff at Zoo Atlanta on Dec. 21, 2006. The cub was born on Sept. 6. A media debut for the cub is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 12, 2007 with limited public viewings in coming weeks. - photo by Associated Press
ATLANTA — First, learning how to walk. Then how to handle the crowds and all the new attention.
    Being a debutante is tough work, especially when you’re a 15-pound furball.
    For weeks, keepers at Zoo Atlanta have been working with their 4-month-old giant panda cub — recently named Mei Lan — to prepare for her public debut, which could be as early as next week. They’ve done everything from putting rubber mats in her nest area to help her get traction as she learns to walk to bringing in groups of zoo workers to make sure she’s OK being in front of crowds.
    The media debut for the cub is scheduled for Friday, with limited public viewings in coming weeks.
    But getting Mei Lan — and her nervous mother — to this point has been no easy task. The zoo already postponed the media debut once after realizing the cub was making chirping noises that meant she was uncomfortable outside her nest.
    ‘‘You just can’t rush it. You have to let the animals tell you when they’re ready,’’ said Rebecca Snyder, curator of giant panda research and management for the zoo.
    Mei Lan and her mother, Lun Lun, have been in seclusion since the cub’s Sept. 6 birth. Panda fans have been keeping up with the duo on the zoo’s panda cam on the Internet or through live video feeds shown on monitors at the zoo’s panda exhibit.
    To help Mei Lan get better traction while learning to walk, zoo keepers also have put adhesive ‘‘no slip’’ strips in her nest area, which is a slick concrete floor. They used natural fiber mats at first, but Lun Lun chewed them to shreds.
    On the zoo’s panda cam, the cub can be seen weaving about her nest area, her legs moving in every direction, as she tries to follow her mother or explore. She is walking on her own now — though it looks more like stumbling.
    Keepers have been bringing in groups of staff members to make sure Mei Lan and Lun Lun are comfortable together in front of crowds. And they keep records of Lun Lun’s behavior toward Mei Lan outside the nest to make sure the 9-year-old panda is nursing the cub properly, eating and resting.
    Nervousness can alter that behavior, which is unhealthy for mom and cub alike.
    Soon the two will romp and play in the panda ‘‘day room,’’ an indoor area filled with climbing equipment in the public part of the animal’s habitat. After she masters climbing, Mei Lan will be ready for the outdoor part of the exhibit, which has rocks, trees and slopes. (It’s important that the cub learns how to walk and climb or else she could get seriously hurt from a fall.)
    The zoo is expecting about a 30 percent spike in visitors once Mei Lan makes her debut. Last year the zoo had about 650,000 visitors. On peak days, it could see upward of 13,000 visitors once Mei Lan goes public, compared to the typical 3,500, said Cary Burgess, senior vice president of operations and guest services.
    And the zoo is ready, he said. They’ve hired 12 part-time employees to only work as panda ‘‘guides’’ at the exhibit. They’ve added more food kiosks, an express ticket line for pre-purchased passes, more security and plenty of roping to guide visitors through the exhibit. More local transit buses also will be running to and from the zoo on weekends.
    Then there’s the panda gift shop, which was recently renovated and updated with new merchandise — stuffed baby pandas, panda cub coffee mugs, panda cub key chains and T-shirts. To name a few.
    Panda debuts can be nerve-racking for everybody involved — mother and zookeepers alike.
    At the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Tai Shan’s December 2005 debut meant weeks of training him and his mother to be comfortable with noise and flashing lights. The National Zoo originally scheduled the event for October that year but postponed it a couple of months to better acclimate the cub and mother to crowds.
    The zoo sold a limited number of tickets online for the first public viewing of Tai Shan, and all 13,000 sold out in less than 10 minutes, spokesman John Gibbons said.
    The San Diego Zoo is an old hand at debuting pandas — three since 1999. Giant-panda keeper Dallas Dumont said the debut of the first cub, Hua Mei, was madness. With each debut, keepers have been careful to make sure the mother, Bai Yun, is comfortable with her cub being around crowds before showing the babies to the public, Dumont said.
    ‘‘We took everything in baby steps and followed Bai Yun’s lead,’’ she said.
    Zoo spokeswoman Yadira Galindo said the zoo saw an increase in the 3.2 million visitors it gets each year after the birth of the first cub.
    Atlanta’s Mei Lan is the only giant panda cub born at U.S. zoo this year, and only the fifth born at a U.S. zoo in the last six years. Her name means ‘‘Atlanta Beauty’’ in Chinese.
    The only other U.S. city with giant pandas is Memphis, which has not been able to successfully impregnate them.
    On the Net:
    Zoo Atlanta:
    San Diego Zoo:
    National Zoo:
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