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September 2, 2013

National Zoo's panda cam proves too cute to resist

The addicts are seemingly everywhere. They sneak peeks in the mornings before work. They watch at the office, keeping the live footage open on their computer screens all day. They linger long enough that they get kicked off for reaching the 15-minute time limit, only to hit the refresh button and start all over again.

The object of their obsession: the Smithsonian National Zoo's panda cams, which offer mesmerizing glimpses of the zoo's female giant panda, Mei Xiang, nursing and nuzzling her squealing newborn cub.

"I am on the panda cam right now. I look at it between appointments. I watch it at night. I watch it when I get up in the morning. I watch it when I go to bed. I am completely entranced," said Marjorie Swett, 62, a Bethesda psychotherapist, who, if she wanted, could do a side gig as a panda-cam color commentator. "Right now, she's sleeping and cuddling. . . . Now she's rolling over. She just went from an upright position and went gracefully on the ground, still folding the baby into herself . . . and her legs are up the wall. She looks totally comfortable."

Since Mei Xiang gave birth on Aug. 23, legions of panda lovers have bombarded the zoo's website, clicking on one of two available panda cams to spy on the mother and cub as they bond inside what the animals believe is their private den.

From late July (when new high-definition cameras were installed) to Friday, the zoo has recorded more than 847,000 clicks on its panda-cam Web page, with about 529,000 of those coming since the day of the cub's birth, according to Mike Thorpe, the zoo's Web specialist. More than 52,000 hours of panda-cam viewing have occurred since July — and more than 30,000 since the cub's birth. (That doesn't even include the number of times people have clicked "play" on the panda cam on the zoo's mobile app, data that weren't available Friday.)

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