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National Zoo prepares for possible panda cub

Wednesday - 7/31/2013, 6:09am  ET

Zookeepers are monitoring Mei Xiang's every movement inside the research center at the National Zoo Tuesday. This is a photo taken from the zoo's panda monitor. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)
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WASHINGTON - Washington could have a panda on the way. Emphasis on "could."

Mei Xiang, the giant panda that gave birth and lost her 6-day-old cub last year, could be pregnant again, according to the Smithsonian National Zoo.

And because she could be in the later part of her pregnancy, the zoo has closed off a portion of the building where the public can see her.

Juan Rodriguez, animal keeper at the National Zoo, says the partial closure is to give the panda peace and quiet and more accurately simulate how Mei Xiang would nest in the wild, away from stimuli or commotion.

Visitors can still see Tian Tian.

"Her activity level has decreased a lot. She's not eating as much. She's going to get to a point where she doesn't want to come out of her air conditioned stall at all," says Rodriguez.

"Basically, it's just a waiting game. So we have to be on this ride with her until the very end," he says.

Zookeepers won't know if Mei Xiang (may SHONG) is actually pregnant up until three weeks before she is due. If she is pregnant, Rodriguez estimates she could give birth in 40 to 50 days.

"Unfortunately, because they have what's called a pseudopregnancy, blood tests and urine tests are going to show signs she is pregnant when in fact she's not," Rodriguez says.

Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated twice in March after failing to breed naturally with Tian Tian (tee-YEN tee-YEN). The zoo says its panda team is monitoring Mei Xiang closely and that she has begun nest building.

Mei Xiang has given birth to two cubs. Tai Shan was born in 2005 and a week-old cub died last September.

Rodriguez says the zoo's staff is mentally preparing for the possibility Mei Xiang is not pregnant. And if she is, the staff is trying to keep in mind how difficult it is to raise a cub to adulthood. He compared the loss of Mei Xiang's cub in September to "winning the lottery and having it taken away from you."

While the zoo staff is still hesitant to get its hopes up, upon hearing Mei Xiang could be pregnant again, visitor Emara Moore was elated at the news.

"I'm very excited. It doesn't happen very often. And I think it is a very special thing, especially for the zoo," Moore said.

Watch the panda live using the National Zoo's panda cam.

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