Meet Washington's adorable VIP (very important panda)
In a city of VIPs, there's a new kid on the block. He's black and white and Asian, just right for this diverse capital. He's a uniter and not a divider, bringing millions of people - and two great nations - together via webcam. And he's the hottest ticket in town.Skip to next paragraph
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Just imagine the cutest stuffed animal ever, brought to life, and that's Tai Shan, the National Zoo's first success story in a decades-long effort to breed a baby giant panda. Now 5 months old, Tai makes his public debut on Dec. 8 - but anyone who doesn't already have a ticket to see him will have to wait a lot longer.
Last month, when the zoo made available 13,000 free, timed-entry tickets to see the little guy, the public snapped them up online in two hours. When the tickets began showing up on eBay, some at more than $75 a pop, the zoo stipulated that people must bring proof that they reserved the tickets themselves. Still, sellers persist.
For reporters on "panda duty," the wait has already ended. Last week, Tai did "meet the press" - not with NBC's Tim Russert, but with more than 100 journalists from 50 news organizations, including crews from China, Japan, and Russia. The toddler panda did not disappoint, performing like a Washington pro before five shifts of writers, photographers, and cameramen, his every head shake and tumble eliciting a flurry of shutter clicks, like a presidential press conference.
The 21-pound Tai squirmed and nibbled on his zookeeper's arm as she carried him into his enclosure. Once on his own, he explored the rock formation, in deliberate, pigeon-toed steps, teetering on the edge of a precipice and at one point, taking a header off the edge. Not to worry, we were reassured, there was plenty of hay to break his fall. Tai also discovered the little stream of water that runs down the rocks, letting it trickle over his head.
The birth of a robust baby to the National Zoo's female giant panda, Mei Xiang, on July 9, represented the culmination of a long-held dream. Ever since the People's Republic of China presented a pair of pandas to the zoo in 1972 as part of President Nixon's historic visit, Washington has hoped for a successful birth. Between 1983 and 1989, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing produced five cubs, but none lived longer than four days.
In 2000, after both adult pandas had died, China loaned the zoo another breeding pair - Mei Xiang and Tian Tian - for 10 years, at a cost of $10 million, which helps fund China's own panda conservation efforts. The giant panda is one of the most critically endangered species in the world: About 1,600 giant pandas live in the wild, and another 185 live in zoos and breeding centers, mostly in China. Three other US zoos have pandas - Memphis, Atlanta, and San Diego. The San Diego Zoo has had three successful panda births, first in 1999 and most recently, in August.
Last spring and summer, the National Zoo's giant panda research team wasn't even sure if Mei Xiang was pregnant until she delivered; adult female pandas go through the physiological changes of pregnancy during breeding season whether they're pregnant or not. About two weeks before she delivered, she became less accessible to zoo staff, and at 3:41 a.m. on July 9, the 250-pound Mei gave birth to a 3-to-5-ounce pink, hairless cub - about the size of a stick of butter. After a few moments of confusion, Mei instinctually picked up the squawking baby and cradled it.