Fifty years in the past this month, large pandas first got here to Washington.


The large panda cub, quickly to be named Tai Shan, was a month outdated. On the Nationwide Zoo, his mom, Mei Xiang, was leaving him alone for longer durations of time. And the keepers noticed an opportunity to sneak in, and seize the cub for a fast medical checkup.

Nobody had laid arms on him since his start had electrified Washington on July 9, 2005. The zoo had by no means had a cub survive various days. Now, for the primary time, somebody would get to select one up. “I needed to be that individual,” veteran keeper Laurie Thompson recalled.

With Mei Xiang locked open air for a second, Thompson, who had been caring for big pandas for a decade, entered the compound. “I reached down and picked him up, and he made this little squeal,” she stated.

It was unforgettable, she recalled final week. He weighed 1.8 kilos.

As Thompson spoke, the zoo was getting ready to rejoice the daybreak of its large panda period on April 16, 1972 — 50 years in the past Saturday — and the beginning of a half-century of Washington-style pandamania.

It has been a joyous affliction.

Hundreds of thousands of individuals have seen the favored animals. President Richard M. Nixon and others have mused over panda intercourse. Benefactors have given cash. Panda followers have rejoiced on the births of cubs, mourned the deaths and wept over the departures.

Friendships have been made among the many devoted. Romances have blossomed. In 2010, a person proposed to his girlfriend within the snow exterior the panda compound.

Panda pictures have adorned, amongst different issues, Washington Metro playing cards, T-shirts, neckties, kites, pajamas, bed room slippers, gigantic airliners and pandemic masks.

Photographers have been obsessed. Frances Nguyen, founding father of Pandas Limitless, a photo-sharing web site, as soon as stated she would possibly take 1,500 panda footage in a day.

“You don’t know why,” she stated. “It’s like magic.”

Anniversary festivities are scheduled Saturday, Sunday and Monday on the zoo, and embody a exhibiting Saturday and Sunday of the Smithsonian Channel movie “The Miracle Panda” within the zoo’s customer middle auditorium.

The occasions are free, however reserved passes are required.

Visiting the pandas on the Nationwide Zoo? Right here’s some knowledgeable recommendation.

The 131-year-old zoo, in Northwest Washington’s Woodley Park neighborhood, is residence to 3 of the beloved animals: Mei Xiang, a 23-year-old feminine; Tian Tian, a 24-year-old male; and Xiao Qi Ji, a 1-year-old male.

The zoo has had 5 different large pandas since 1972.

Two — Ling-Ling, a feminine; and Hsing-Hsing, a male — are deceased.

Tai Shan; Bao Bao, a feminine; and Bei Bei, a male — all born in Washington — have been despatched to China as a part of a lending and breeding program.

China owns and leases all large pandas in U.S. zoos.

The zoo’s large panda story started in February 1972, when Nixon and first girl Pat Nixon made their historic Chilly Battle go to to communist China.

Though bitter foes of america, the Chinese language went out of their method to be gracious hosts to the American delegation.

China had beforehand used presents of large pandas as overtures to international locations just like the Soviet Union and North Korea.

And at a banquet on Feb. 21, when Pat Nixon remarked on the panda-themed label on a tin of Chinese language cigarettes, Premier Zhou Enlai stated: “I’ll provide you with some.”

“Cigarettes?” the primary girl requested.

“No,” Zhou stated. “Pandas.”

A Chinese language cigarette tin launched D.C.’s 50-year love affair with pandas

Eight weeks later, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived earlier than daybreak beneath tight safety at Andrews Air Drive Base in suburban Maryland and have been quietly transported to the zoo.

They have been each about 18 months outdated. And once they made their public debut the subsequent weekend, 20,000 individuals got here to see them. “New Pandas Soften Hearts,” one newspaper headline learn.

When the pair acquired older, the zoo tried to breed them. Ling-Ling bore a number of cubs, together with a set of twins. However all have been both stillborn or died quickly after start.

Then, in 1992, Ling-Ling died out of the blue.

Two years later, Thompson, 51, the zoo’s longest-serving large panda keeper, began working there, and wound up caring for the well-known however growing old Hsing-Hsing.

“He was a very attention-grabbing animal,” with large, fluffy “Mickey Mouse” ears, she stated on the zoo final week.

“He was very charismatic,” she stated. “He was older, however he was very candy. … You simply kind of fell in love with the species, and the way completely different and distinctive they have been.”

“And as he began creating some well being points, I acquired chosen to be one of many core group of keepers that was going to remain and be very panda-focused with him and his sickness,” she stated.

With kidney points and arthritis, he declined over about six months, she stated.

At one level he wouldn’t take his arthritis medication. The keepers had found that he favored the blueberry muffins from the Starbucks throughout Connecticut Avenue from the zoo, she stated.

So he was given his medication inside a blueberry muffin, she stated.

Lastly, his struggling was so obvious that zoo specialists realized he must be euthanized.

Over Thanksgiving 1999, Thompson and different keepers have been referred to as in to say goodbye. After Hsing-Hsing was anesthetized, they have been capable of enter the enclosure and contact him.

“I used to be unhappy,” she stated. “However I feel I had performed a lot of the grieving earlier than.”

Hsing-Hsing, the final hyperlink to the nice 1972 China breakthrough and the zoo’s solely remaining large panda, was euthanized on Nov. 28.

Thompson lamented that he and Ling-Ling by no means had cubs that survived.

Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing have been presents, she famous, not like subsequent large pandas, together with cubs born right here, that are primarily on mortgage from China. (Cubs born right here all go to China after the age of 4.)

Had any of Ling-Ling’s cubs survived, she stated, “they’d have been ours.”

All three of the zoo’s large pandas are prone to go China subsequent 12 months: the adults as a result of they’re aged, and the cub, partially, as a result of he can be close to breeding age, a zoo spokeswoman stated.

The zoo stated it has cordial relations with its Chinese language counterparts and hopes that China could be amenable to sending extra large pandas.

Certainly, a 12 months after Hsing-Hsing died, China despatched the zoo Tian Tian, then 3, and Mei Xiang, then 2, on a 10-year, $10 million lease.

They arrived Dec. 6, 2000, at Dulles Worldwide Airport in Virginia and acquired a police escort into town. Thompson was current once they arrived on the zoo. She peeked into the journey crate bearing Tian Tian.

“He was simply dozing,” she stated. “I used to be like, ‘Oh my gosh, this man is superior. In spite of everything this, he’s sleeping in his crate.’ ” (To this present day, she stated, he’s her favourite.)

“It was superexciting,” she stated. “Simply to get the possibility to find out about youthful pandas. … I’d solely seen this outdated panda … on the finish of his life. And now I set to work with 2- and 3-year-olds.”

And some years later it was time to strive breeding them.

Beginning in 2002, pure breeding and synthetic insemination have been tried with out success. In 2005, after pure breeding fizzled once more, Mei was artificially inseminated with Tian’s sperm on March 11.

For months it was not clear whether or not Mei was truly pregnant. Large pandas can exhibit indicators of being pregnant even when they don’t seem to be pregnant.

However at 3:41 a.m. on July 9, squeals have been heard from the panda enclosure. A zookeeper shouted over the telephone to a superior: “There’s a cub! There’s a cub!”

Thompson was referred to as at residence. “Clearly, I jumped away from bed,” she recalled.

“Essentially the most thrilling factor ever,” she stated. “We’ve now had a number of cubs, they usually’re all distinctive. However that first cub for us, I imply there was no pleasure like that.”

“It was the start” she stated.

A brand new wave of panda mania was breaking — a contented phenomenon that has ebbed and surged in Washington now for 50 years.


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