- Emotional farewell to Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and Xiao Qi Ji.
- Panda Palooza draws crowds despite rainy weather.
- A look back at the pandas’ history in Washington.
- The end of an era for the National Zoo’s giant panda program.
Carolyn Smith extended her arm gracefully over a chain-link enclosure, capturing images of the youthful panda, firmly pressed against a stone wall.
A grin graced her face as Xiao Qi Ji meticulously savored the remaining vestiges of an ice confection, elevating himself several inches to gain a more advantageous perspective of the monochrome bear positioned beyond the barrier.
The day in question marked the fifth visit to the National Zoo within two years for the Columbus, Ohio, resident. She adorned herself in a zoo-themed poncho, complemented by a crimson and khaki panda-themed hat, and a tote bag featuring the charismatic creature.
“The only panda-themed item missing from my ensemble today are my panda-patterned socks,” disclosed Smith, a 60-year-old enthusiast. “I wore those yesterday.”
Smith numbered among the throngs of individuals who flocked to the zoo on that particular Saturday to inaugurate Panda Palooza, a nine-day festivity designed to pay homage to the facility’s colossal pandas.
These magnificent pandas are slated to return to their homeland in China by December 7th after a lengthy loan stint in the United States. Zoo authorities have previously asserted that Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, both venerable at 25 years of age, are making the journey back due to their advanced age. Their 3-year-old progeny, Xiao Qi Ji, will also accompany them, as he approaches the breeding age.
These three pandas are part of a lineage of eight that have been housed at the zoo since 1972. It was a historic moment when President Richard M. Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon embarked on a Cold War-era visit to communist China, and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai bestowed two 18-month-old pandas, Ling-Ling, a female, and Hsing-Hsing, a male, to the United States.
However, the looming departure of these pandas casts uncertainty over the fate of the National Zoo’s giant panda program, which spans over half a century. In the coming months, the prospect of having no pandas at the zoo for the first time in years appears increasingly likely.
The demise of Ling-Ling in 1992 and Hsing-Hsing in 1999 left a void, which was eventually filled by Mei Xiang and Tian Tian on December 6, 2000, one year and eight days later. It’s crucial to note that these pandas were not gifts but part of ongoing temporary lease agreements. Three other pandas born at the zoo were repatriated to China upon reaching the age of four as part of the zoo’s program.
For over four generations, residents of Washington and visitors from around the nation have had the opportunity to encounter the city’s magnificent pandas. Ten different presidents have held office since their arrival.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama played a role in naming one of the giant panda cubs, while President Nixon once engaged in a discourse on giant panda mating issues with a newspaper editor. President Bill Clinton, in his observation, noted, “they have long claws and very big teeth.”
The giant panda has become an enduring symbol of Washington, sharing the spotlight with landmarks like the White House and the Capitol.
The panda’s likeness has graced buses, Metro cards, sneakers, shirts, slippers, pajamas, onesies, mugs, water bottles, totes, scarves, scrunchies, and hats. There are even giant panda backpacks, bookends, books, puzzles, and Christmas ornaments.
On that Saturday, the zoo had to cancel certain outdoor Palooza activities due to inclement weather. Nevertheless, this did not deter crowds of people, who, clad in raincoats and bucket hats, congregated outside the panda sanctuary as a fine mist of cold rain graced their faces.
Laura Tatlock, hailing from Raleigh, N.C., had aspired to see the pandas for approximately five years and expressed her delight in finally fulfilling that wish. Her husband, Alexander Hamilton, 27, cradled their infant daughter as Tatlock leaned against the chain-link enclosure, closely observing Xiao Qi Ji’s descent down a sloping terrain.
“It’s an experience that evokes mixed emotions,” Tatlock, 26, remarked. “This is our only opportunity to witness them.”
Victoria Thomaides, 25, shared that her childhood was steeped in panda fascination, although her ardor had waned with age. In the seven years since she relocated to D.C., Thomaides admitted to not having seen the pandas until this weekend.
“I recently moved to a neighborhood closer to the zoo,” she confessed, her gaze fixed on Mei Xiang from an elevated vantage point. “And when I heard about this event, it felt like a calling I couldn’t ignore.”
William King, a 30-year-old resident of D.C., hastened to catch a glimpse of the pandas before they retreated to an off-limits area of the sanctuary. Despite initial reluctance to venture outdoors on a rainy day, he promptly sprang into action upon viewing the three bears indulging in their ice cakes through the giant panda cam.