It’s a terrible experience when someone you care for is suffering and there’s nothing you can do. But when one giant panda’s labor turned into a distressingly long ordeal, her carers found themselves helplessly waiting. All they could do, in fact, was hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
In October 2016 BBC Earth uploaded a YouTube video capturing the rare event of a giant panda’s agonizing labor. Northern Irish vet Steve Leonard had visited the bear at Bifengxia Panda Base in Sichuan, China, and the experience of a lifetime was recorded for the U.K. television network ITV.
Leonard had traveled 5,000 miles to see seven-year-old Min Min for the show Panda Babies. What’s more, the filming marked the first time that the vet had seen pandas up close during his 20-year career. However, Min Min’s labor wasn’t going as well as the sanctuary staff had hoped.
Still, the fact that Min Min was pregnant at all was excellent news, especially as pandas in captivity usually display little interest in mating. And this was an especially important problem to solve, because – until recently – the species was considered endangered.
Furthermore, various methods had been tried to enhance breeding programs, including bizarre ones such as giving male pandas the sexual aid medication sildenafil – better known as Viagra. They also tried playing videos of pandas mating to “get them in the mood.” But, as it turned out, artificial insemination was the most effective approach.
And this definitely helped with conservation efforts: recent research has showed that pandas’ mating patterns are now close to that of the American black bear. Thankfully, then, such breakthroughs have made it easier for potential moms like Min Min to become pregnant. Unfortunately, however, her labor was far from normal.
The YouTube video, moreover, only shows a fraction of the time that Min Min was in pain for. Still, it is disturbing to watch as she rolls on the floor in clear agony. And, frighteningly, her labor lasted like that for three days, as administering pain medication to a panda giving birth can be dangerous to both the mother and the cub. All her handlers could do, then, was wait and see.
Not surprisingly, those attending the birth feared the worst for her baby. “She should have given birth by now,” the narrator on the video revealed. “The fact that she hasn’t suggests one thing: her baby is probably dead.”
Indeed, pandas are supposed to have relatively easy births. Their babies are roughly 1/800th of the mother’s weight, and proportionately they’re the smallest offspring of any mammal. Min Min’s protracted labor was clearly a cause for concern, then – and her struggle must have been unimaginable.
It’s no secret that giving birth isn’t easy, so imagine how poor Min Min must have felt. Indeed, the fact that she was still trying to finish her labor was both heartbreaking and inspiring. It was certainly a surprise to the panda sanctuary staff, for one.
“Incredibly, she is pushing on,” the video explained. “To survive a three-day labor is unheard of here, and yet she is trying. Hard.” But it looked like Min Min’s struggle was coming to a close when she rolled to her feet and backed up against the wall.
The documentary was filmed to show the world the rare process of a panda cub’s birth, and that included the uncolored truth of maternity difficulties. At that point, moreover, after such a troubled labor, Min Min’s keepers were prepared for the worst. At least, though, her struggle would be over.
But the end result of Min Min’s labor isn’t what her keepers expected at all. Just when it looked like a worst case scenario, in fact, something amazing happened: it was revealed that the panda’s baby wasn’t going to be stillborn after all. Indeed, she had a live panda baby still struggling to emerge.
At that stage of the childbirth, meanwhile, Min Min’s efforts were clearly focused on one thing: getting her cub out. And as she rolled over, the filming process recorded tiny squeaks coming from her baby. Its vocalizations came as a complete shock to the staff watching, too.
Then, at last, the footage shows Min Min managing to stand up on all fours. And it was at this point during her three-day labor that she underwent her final birthing pains. Despite the situation looking perilous for a long time, then, Panda Babies had captured a truly magical moment.
Next in the vid, in one smooth movement, Min Min lifts her rear leg, and out pops a panda cub, kicking and screaming! What’s more, the cub’s noisy and animated entrance into the world indicated a healthy newborn. But just why did Min Min’s labor take so long?
Well, it turns out that the newborn cub was practically a bowling ball in comparison to other baby pandas. “Large births are always difficult, and it’s little wonder,” the video narrator explained. “At seven-and-a-half ounces, Min Min’s baby is almost double the average size of a newborn panda. It’s also a fighter; thrashing legs are testament to that,” the narrator added.
In September 2015, moreover, National Geographic announced in an Instagram post that Min Min’s newborn daughter was “the largest [panda] cub born [that] year.” It also revealed that “giant pandas are born tiny, blind and helpless, [and that] the limbs of newborn pandas are so weak that they are not able to stand.”
“For the first two months, baby pandas only nurse, sleep and poo,” the post continued. What’s more, although there was a moment when the new mother could have rejected her daughter, it turned out that the cub was in good hands – or paws. “Min Min is proving to be an excellent mother,” National Geographic added.
And fortunately, thanks to a recent boom in panda births, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) changed the panda’s status on its Red List in 2016. Indeed, the species is now considered “vulnerable” rather than “endangered.” Furthermore, studies estimate that as many as 2,000 to 3,000 pandas currently live in the wild – and if the success of breeding programs continues, many more little cubs like Min Min’s ought to boost their numbers, too.