The time has come for two American-born giant pandas to go home to their species’ native land.
On Thursday, three-year-old Mei Lan of Atlanta and 4 ½-year-old Tai Shan of Washington will fly to new homes in Sichuan, China, to become part of a panda breeding programme.
It’s a day panda lovers have been dreading.
“He’s our success story,” 37-year-old panda fan Deanna Williston said of Tai Shan. During a Wednesday visit to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, she recalled how her family and friends tracked his growth from the size of a stick of butter to nearly 200 pounds (90 kilograms).
She knitted a panda hat based on Tai Shan’s picture and wears it for good luck when there might be another panda pregnancy.
“We got to see him as a cub, sitting in a tiny bucket,” she said, overlooking the zoo’s panda yard where Tai Shan snacked in the snow and climbed a tree.
Pandas have a long, symbolic history in Washington. The first panda couple, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, arrived in 1972 as a gift to the American people from China after President Richard Nixon’s historic visit.
The pair lived more than 20 years at the zoo and produced five cubs - but none survived.
That’s partly why Tai Shan, the first cub to grow up in the nation’s capital, is so adored.
“All the other pandas we’ve borrowed from China, but he’s ours,” said Amanda Parson, 30, who left home in neighbouring Maryland at 6:15 a.m. on Wednesday to visit the zoo for Tai Shan’s last day on view.
The zoo’s two remaining pandas, mother Mei Xiang and father Tian Tian, are on a 10-year, $10 million (euro7 million) loan until December.
Tai Shan gave his mother a few sniffs on Wednesday through a fenced window between their separate yards.
For animal keeper Nicole Meese, Tai Shan’s departure is personal. She first held him as a baby and spent late nights calling him when he learned to climb trees but wouldn’t come down.
“Every day, he makes me smile,” said Meese, who will travel to China with the pandas aboard their own jet. “I’m going to miss him terribly.”
To help ease the transition from English to Chinese, Meese trained Tai Shan, whose name means “peaceful mountain,” with hand signals. She has spent weeks putting together a photo booklet of the signals for his new keepers at Bifengxia Panda Base in the mountains of south-central China.
Chinese zookeepers are advertising for a tutor to provide the panda language lessons for Mei Lan.
The female panda, whose name means “Atlanta beauty,” was the first cub born at Zoo Atlanta. Her arrival in 2006 brought thousands more visitors to the zoo and millions of clicks to an online panda cam.
Since then, her parents, Lun Lun and Yang Yang, had another cub - Xi Lan - a male born in 2008.
Mei Lan will leave Atlanta early Thursday for Washington where she will join Tai Shan and travel to China in a Boeing 777 freighter with a panda painted on the side.