Smithsonian's National Zoo
En español | Melynda Wilcox feels a sense of awe watching giant panda Mei Xiang cradle her tiny new cub, born the size of a stick of butter, in her broad black paws.
By tuning into the Smithsonian's National Zoo giant panda cam. Wilcox, 56, gets a front-row seat as Mei Xiang snuggles the baby panda, nurses, and even leaves the baby squirming in the hay for a few moments,
"I just love watching her,” says Wilcox. “She is so amazing with that tiny, little thing."
Wilcox regularly took her panda-obsessed daughters, who just graduated from college, to visit Mei Xiang throughout their childhoods. For the past couple of weeks, Wilcox has kept a tab of the panda cam livestream open on her computer, so she can check on the mother and baby throughout the day.
"Because of the pandemic, we're all grasping for something that shows emotion and the connection between two living beings,” Wilcox says. “We're missing so much of that in our own lives."
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Panda superfans unite
Wilcox isn't the only person welcoming the increasingly fuzzy cub into the world. From the United States to Australia and Chile, animal lovers have tuned into Mei Xiang's motherly routine as a heartwarming distraction from news about COVID-19. Since the pregnancy was announced, the Giant Panda cam has seen a 3,000 percent increase in page views compared to the first half of August, with 639,000 users visiting the stream 1.73 million times for an average of nine minutes and 25 seconds.
In fact, animal cam viewership in general has been up since the start of the pandemic. Visitors to cams that provide a peek at everything from bald eagles to brown bears on Explore.org, the world's largest live nature network, increased 40 percent at the height of the lockdown compared to the previous year. The vast majority of visitors to the site are over the age of 55, the organization says.
But giant pandas seem to hold a special place in people's hearts. They're classified as vulnerable, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with only 1,800 living in the wild. In the United States, only three zoos have giant pandas.
And they're adorable. Pandas’ fuzzy coloring, their round faces and seemingly doe eyes are qualities considered inherently cute to homo sapiens. “There's a theory that humans are hardwired to love big-headed, big-eyed things,” says Marty Dearie, giant panda keeper at the National Zoo.
These days, panda cam watchers can see up-close views of the tiny cub and watch as Mei Xiang gently snuggles the baby. Panda super fan, Cyndy Taylor, 49, who now lives in Fairfax, Virginia, has been traveling to Washington, D.C., to see the pandas since she was a kid in Thousand Islands, New York. Through social media, Taylor has connected with other panda cam watchers from around the world.
This year, Taylor says, the birth of Mei Xiang's baby has felt almost “miraculous” given the species’ three-day (per year!) window for conception and the panda's advanced maternal age of 22. Mei Xiang is the second-oldest giant panda to give birth in captivity, ever. “This year everyone wanted and needed good news,” Taylor says. “For me, personally, the fact that it's such a small chance of happening, it gives me hope."
5 Other Animal Cams Worth Watching
1. Brooks Falls Brown Bears at Katmai National Park, Alaska
Watch wild Alaskan grizzlies attempt to catch sockeye salmon as the fish leap up the falls en route to ancient breeding grounds. Make sure to tune in to Fat Bear Week, September 30 to October 6 this year, for the annual March Madness-style competition that pits some of the best-known bears of Brooks River against each other for the title of 2020 Fattest Bear, determined by bear cam viewers.
2. Decorah Eagles at Raptor Resource Project, Iowa
The Raptor Resource Project folks built this bald eagle nest near a trout hatchery in 2015, hoping that eagles would take it over. Tune in to watch the birds throughout the year.
3. Helzberg Penguin Plaza at the Kansas City Zoo, Kansas City, Missouri
Watch 17 king penguins, eight macaroni penguins, and 45 gentoo penguins waddling and swimming in their cold-weather habitat at the Kansas City Zoo. The penguins lay eggs frequently, and the zoo has had several successful hatchings of adorable chicks.
4. California Condor Sanctuary in Big Sur
This cam features views of pristine landscapes in the redwood forests and the rugged mountains of Big Sur—as well as the return of the condor species from the brink of extinction. At its historic low in 1982, only 22 California condors were alive. The number is now up to 312 wild and 173 captive birds and this animal cam tracks the nest of the Ventana Wildlife Society's captive-bred condors that have been released into their natural habitat.
5. Tau Waterhole at Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa
Want to see elephants, giraffes, lions, zebras and cheetahs out in the wild? This oasis attracts more than 27 species of big game and countless birds. There's always something spectacular to see.