WASHINGTON — The capital's newest celebrity isn't a Democrat or Republican. It's a giant panda cub no bigger than a stick of butter.
The unnamed baby was born at the National Zoo early Saturday to Mei Xiang, one of two giant pandas that have become a popular Washington attraction, drawing about 1.5 million visitors a year.
Zoo officials said the newborn was doing fine and was secluded with its mother in the zoo's giant panda quarters, monitored around the clock via cameras by veterinary staff.
The birth was seen as a hopeful sign for efforts to revive the endangered species. "It is definitely a great day at the National Zoo," spokesman John Gibbons said. "Because giant pandas are endangered, each birth helps strengthen the species' future."
But zoo officials called the next few days critical.
Five cubs were born between 1983 and 1989 to a different pair of pandas -- now deceased -- brought to the National Zoo after President Nixon's groundbreaking trip to Beijing in 1972. None of the cubs lived more than a few days. They are highly susceptible to infection.
This is the first cub born to 6-year-old Mei Xiang (pronounced may-SHONG), who was artificially inseminated in March, and 7-year-old male Tian Tian (t-YEN t-YEN). China loaned the pair to the zoo in 2000 for 10 years. In return, the zoo contributes $1 million a year to panda conservation efforts in China.
There are thought to be only about 1,600 giant pandas left in the wild, Gibbons said. Pandas can be found at only three other U.S. zoos -- in San Diego, Atlanta and Memphis, Tenn. Pandas were born at the San Diego Zoo in 1999 and 2003.
The latest baby belongs to China and will be returned there, probably after two years, if it survives.
National Zoo officials said the cub was active, making a loud squealing noise, and that Mei Xiang was showing signs of being a "great mother."
"She picked up the cub within about two minutes of its birth and has been cuddling and cradling it since then," the zoo said in a statement posted on its website. "When Mom dozes off, and the cub squeals, she immediately wakes up and attends to it."
Zoo officials said they planned to intervene only if the cub showed signs of distress or the mother began to ignore it. They said they probably would be unable to determine its gender until they could conduct a medical exam, which might not occur for a few weeks.
Mother and baby could not be viewed Saturday on the zoo's website "panda cam" because -- in a sign of the commercial value of the black-and-white animals -- the Animal Planet TV network had purchased exclusive rights to tape their first 24 hours together for later broadcast. They can be viewed online today at nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/GiantPandas.