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Washington panda cub thriving ahead of public debut

The youngest giant panda cub at the National Zoo in Washington is ready for his close-up.

Keepers were expecting Bei Bei to squawk and squirm during an audience with a small news media contingent on Monday.

Instead, under bright television lights with cameras clicking, he quickly fell asleep on an examination table, leaving a small puddle of drool on the tablecloth.

Throughout his nearly 30-minute appearance, keepers and veterinarians stroked Bei Bei's thick, bristly fur, and he protested only when they tried to open his mouth to count his teeth.

Panda biologist Laurie Thompson explained that before he went in front of the cameras, Bei Bei was playing with a piece of bamboo and trying to walk - and just like a newborn human, he tires easily.

"I'm very proud of him," Ms Thompson said. "Obviously, he wasn't too bothered by all the people here. This is just the beginning for him as far as people go."

The cub will make a few appearances before selected audiences ahead of his public debut on January 16, when the panda house will reopen.

That is also around the time Bei Bei will be sure enough on his feet that he will get to venture into the outdoor panda habitat for the first time.

Pandas are famously helpless at birth: pink, hairless, blind, and about the size of a stick of butter.

Bei Bei, who was a twin - his brother did not survive - weighed just 113 grams when he was born.

Now, at nearly four months, he weighs eight kilograms, gaining about a pound a week - he is bigger than either of his siblings were at the same age - and is hitting every developmental milestone.

He is one of four pandas at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, along with his mother, Mei Xiang, his father, Tian Tian, and his two-year-old sister, Bao Bao.

The pandas belong to China, and after they turn four, Bao Bao and then Bei Bei will return to China and join the breeding programme there.

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