National Zoo Panda Cub Takes His First Steps on His Own: 'He’s Way More Active Overnight'

He did it!

On Thanksgiving Day, Washington D.C.’s giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji managed to balance himself on all four paws for a few steps before collapsing near mom, and the adorable milestone was caught on video.

Before the big moment, the cub spent most of his time crawl-walking slowly and building up strength, says Laurie Thompson, the assistant curator of the panda exhibit at Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.

Now, the cub's mom, Mei Xiang, sits him down and watches him practice walking on all fours, helping the cub get more comfortable with walking on his own. During one of these recent practice sessions, Xiao Qi Ji toddled over into a glass pane and couldn’t figure out how to get through it.

"He didn’t understand the glass," Thompson says. "He couldn’t move forward and it took him a minute to reorient himself."

Xiao Qi Ji, which means "Little Miracle," was named in a public vote last month. The black-and-white toddler, beloved for bringing joy during the pandemic, is now 3 ½ months old, big enough to require keepers to use two hands to hold him.

He still spends most of the day sleeping and completely depends on his mother’s milk for sustenance. But nights are a different story. "He’s way more active overnight," says Thompson. He and his mom Mei Xiang play-bite, and she rolls him for sport.

His claws are growing too. "He sticks to our clothing," adds Thompson, noting that he’ll need his claws when he starts climbing trees and that the activity will keep his nails naturally filed. Thankfully, he hasn’t used them to swat at anyone in defense.

Because pandas don’t have great eyesight, cubs especially so, Xiao Qi Ji startles easily. If he’s sleeping when keepers go in to clean the den and try to move him, "he’ll bark at us as a warning," Thompson says. He also barks at his mom if she hits him accidentally with a bamboo shoot.

His sense of hearing is better, and the keepers talk to him when they come into his den. "If you talk to him, he’ll turn his head," Thompson says.

Keepers have noticed his teeth coming in when he "yells at us," Thompson adds, but the vet can’t count them – because the cub won’t open his mouth during his check-up. Xiao Qi Ji was also squirmy last week when the vet tried to weigh him, attempting to crawl off the table. Keepers ended up putting the baby animal in a tub to get a weight. He came in at 12 pounds.

Zookeepers enjoy interacting with Xiao Qi Ji, but they hope to come up with a nickname for him soon. "The three-word name is a lot," Thompson says.

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