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San Diego's Panda Super Couple Basks in Spotlight

Giving each other space may not work in every relationship, but it's what keeps the magic alive for the giant panda pair at the San Diego Zoo.

Giving each other space may not work in every relationship, but it's what keeps the magic alive for the giant panda pair at the San Diego Zoo.

Since 2003, Bai Yun and her consort, Gao Gao, have produced three cubs, making them one of the most reproductively successful panda couples ever in captivity. Their youngest offspring, a chubby female, will be named Monday when she reaches 100 days old, following Chinese tradition.

separate lives, gnawing on bamboo and taking long naps in pens far apart, much as wild pandas - naturally solitary creatures - would hide from each other in mountain forests.

But when Bai Yun enters her brief fertile periods, zookeepers make sure Gao Gao is there, sniffing her through a perforated gate zookeepers call the "howdy door" until her chirps and bleats indicate she's ready to get down to business.

"For 363 days a year they don't want to have anything to do with each other," said Ron Swaisgood, co-head of the zoo's panda research unit.

Bai Yun gave birth to her first cub in 1999 through artificial insemination from her first arranged suitor, Shi Shi (Stone). It was the first giant panda cub in the U.S. after a decade of failed breeding attempts.

Since then, pandas have been born at the zoos in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. A panda at the Memphis Zoo miscarried during her first pregnancy earlier this year.

Gao Gao arrived in San Diego in 2003 after veterinarians gave up on Shi Shi, who turned out to be older and less virile than originally believed and was returned to China.

Putting the virgin Bai Yun with Gao Gao, who had not mated before, caused some concern. Swaisgood thought it might be like "the blind leading the blind."

Instead, Gao Gao surprised everyone by mating with Bai Yun three times in a single day.

Gao Gao is aggressive during the first 24 hours of her cycle and then wanders back to his bamboo pile once he's had his fill - even if Bai Yun beckons him with her customary booty-shake.

"He only has interest in her for one day, but day two or day three, when she's still exhibiting interest, he just has nothing to do with her," said Kathy Hawk, the zoo's senior panda keeper. "He seems to be a one-shot guy, but she's gotten pregnant each time. He knows what he's doing."

Bai Yun gave birth to a male panda in 2003 and to a female panda in 2005. Pandas don't wean their cubs for about two years, so every other spring Gao Gao, believed to now be 17, is out of luck with Bai Yun, who is 16.

Gao Gao's value as a stud breeder is high. Rescued from the wild and raised at the Wolong Nature Reserve for Giant Pandas in China, he isn't related to any other captive pandas, who are in danger of becoming inbred as their population swells.

More than 180 pandas live in captivity at three facilities in China, where 12 sets of twins were among the 31 cubs born this year, according to the state news agency Xinhua. Bai Yun's first cub, Hua Mei (China/U.S.A.), has borne three sets of twins since returning in 2003.

Gao Gao's prowess has provoked a bout of panda envy elsewhere around the U.S.

Earlier this year, the National Zoo in Washington used a sample of Gao Gao's semen to try to artificially inseminate their panda, Mei Xiang, who set off a panda craze in the capital when the zoo's own male panda fathered her cub in 2005.

The Washington Post chronicled the journey of a 2-foot tall tank of dry-ice cooled materiel from San Diego to Washington in March, writing that Gao Gao had the "liquid eyes" of Johnny Depp and the "sultry mystery" of Antonio Banderas. After the pregnancy failed, one blogger on the Web site DCist gave the setback a positive spin, saying Washingtonians can "sleep better tonight knowing that Washington panda sperm is indeed superior to that of Southern California."

Gao Gao, who lolls in his sun-dappled pen, double-fisting bamboo, is eliciting less fawning coverage back home. The San Diego Union-Tribune recently published a story that said the people were getting a little jaded by the pandas' success.

The newest cub remains hidden with Bai Yun in a cozy den that can only be seen by the public via Webcam. The zoo will announce the cub's name from among four finalists: Li Hua (Beautiful China), Ming Zhu (Bright Treasure), Xiao Li (Little Beauty) and Zhen Zhen (Precious).