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Panda's pregnant pause

THE PRECISE condition of Ming Ming, the giant panda, is currently an unfathomable mystery, rather like the future of her London Zoo home.

As factions argue over whether the zoo should stay open and what its role should be, Ming Ming's keepers are trying to solve the puzzle of whether she is pregnant.

Ming Ming was artificially inseminated in March. Staff at the zoo hoped that they might bring about the first giant panda birth in Europe. Keepers had to resort to this tactic because the course of true panda love was not running smoothly and Ming Ming had rejected the overtures of her prospective mate Bao-Bao.

It is not known whether the insemination was successful because of the absence of any reliable pregnancy test. Mick Carman, Ming Ming's keeper, said: 'It is part of the panda biology that we are not able to know if she is going to have a cub.'

Instead the staff have to rely on behavioural observations and they have been encouraged by a change in the temperament of the habitually grumpy Ming Ming. Mr Carman said yesterday: 'On Saturday, for the first time since she came here in October, she came over and let me scratch her neck. Usually she is a bit of a misery.' Although a birth would be a triumph for staff and a much-needed addition to an endangered species, ironically it would present keepers with a dilemma because of London Zoo's uncertain future.

The zoo is scheduled to close at the end of this month, although a gift of pounds 1m from the Emir of Kuwait should allow it to remain open for longer while the debate continues. Mr Carman said: 'If the zoo does close then it will give us a headache. The cub could not be moved for six months. The first possible birth date would be 7 September but we are checking every day and it could be up to six weeks later.'