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1/12/07-ATLANTA, Georgia

Atlanta's panda cub makes her debut

Mei Lan explores Zoo Atlanta's panda exhibit during the cub's media debut on Friday. Mei Lan explores Zoo Atlanta's panda exhibit during the cub's media debut on Friday.
Lun Lun dines on bamboo shoots as Mei Lan crawls around the panda exhibit. Lun Lun dines on bamboo shoots as Mei Lan crawls around the panda exhibit.

 She must learn to walk with a certain grace. And she must be able to handle the crowds and all the attention.

Being a debutante is tough work, especially when you're a 15-pound fur ball.

For weeks, keepers at Zoo Atlanta have been working with their 4-month-old giant panda cub, Mei Lan, to prepare her for her debut.

They have put rubber mats in her nest area to help her get traction as she learns to walk, and brought groups of zoo workers in to get her accustomed to being in front of crowds.

The cub made its media debut on Friday and limited public viewings are scheduled in coming weeks.

Getting Mei Lan and her nervous mother to this point has been no easy task. The zoo already postponed the media debut once after realizing the cub was making chirping noises that meant she was uncomfortable outside her nest.

"You just can't rush it. You have to let the animals tell you when they're ready," said Rebecca Snyder, curator of giant panda research and management.

Mei Lan and her mother, Lun Lun, have been in seclusion since the cub's September 6 birth. Panda fans have been keeping up with the duo on the zoo's panda cam on the Internet or through live video feeds on monitors at the zoo's panda exhibit.

Zookeepers have put adhesive "no slip" strips on the slick concrete floor to help Mei Lan while she learns to walk. They put down natural fiber mats at first, but Lun Lun chewed them to shreds.

She is walking on her own now -- though it looks more like stumbling. It is important that the cub learn how to walk and climb well; she could get seriously hurt from a fall inside her enclosure, which has rocks, trees and slopes.

The zoo is expecting a sharp increase in attendance once Mei Lan makes her debut. On peak days, it could see upward of 13,000 visitors, compared with the typical 3,500, said Cary Burgess, senior vice president of operations.

The zoo has hired 12 part-timers to work as guides at the panda exhibit. The gift shop has been stocked with stuffed baby pandas, panda cub coffee mugs, panda cub key chains and T-shirts.

Mei Lan is the only giant panda cub born at a U.S. zoo in 2006, and the fifth in the past six years. Her name is Chinese for "Atlanta Beauty."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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