WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
"We've learned a lot about how an inexperienced female gets it right, and this will help us in the future establish a good birth environment for female pandas," says Suzan Murray, the zoo's chief veterinarian.
Zoo staff did not examine the cub until he was about three weeks old, when Mei finally left him alone for a few minutes to eat and drink. It was only then they determined he was male. At 100 days old, according to Chinese custom, he was named. The public voted for Tai Shan - "peaceful mountain" - from a list of names presented by the China Wildlife Conservation Association. Under the loan agreement, Tai will return to China when he turns two. Zoo staff insist they are prepared for that moment - and, indeed, that it will be a joyous occasion, because he will have lots of other pandas to breed with.
"We'll miss him, of course," allows Jo Gayle Howard, the reproductive scientist who artificially inseminated Mei after the panda couple failed to conceive naturally.
Whether Tai will miss the zoo staff is a different question. So far, he doesn't seem to know who all those people are - nearly all women - poking and measuring and fussing around him regularly.
"We're kinda the big strange animal that comes around that's not his mother, and I don't think he quite knows what we are," says Lisa Stevens, the assistant curator for pandas. She says Tai doesn't show any particular affection toward humans, though she thinks he's starting to respond to human voices, noting that he responds to people differently than he does to his mother. The keepers insist on calling him Tai Shan - no nicknames, like Butterstick - so he will learn his name.
Tai has also started to be assertive with both the zoo staff and his mother. If someone does something he doesn't like, he barks. He chases the keepers around - and his mother, too. Tai also likes to climb on mom and chew on her, which she tolerates more or less. (He is kept away from his dad, Tian Tian.) For now, Tai's only food is Mei's high-fat milk, and he will continue to nurse for another year. He won't start eating bamboo for another month.
Some of the action is viewable via the Web on the "panda cam" (http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/GiantPandas/). For some in Washington, watching panda cam can be addictive (but, editors note, not this reporter, whose Mac thankfully couldn't tune in); women, in particular, can't get enough of Mei cuddling her baby and demonstrating her natural mothering skills. Some have reportedly called the zoo in a moment of worry that Mei was about to crush her baby.
The femaleness of the whole panda enterprise has not gone unnoticed. Guys who claim they "don't get" the cute panda thing just don't want to express themselves openly, says zoo spokesman John Gibbons. "There may be a cool male factor going on here," he says.
Zoologists have even analyzed why humans are so taken by pandas: Their features are similar to those of human babies - the big eyes, big round head, little ears that stick up, their general pudginess. Adult pandas don't grow out of these features, and thus they maintain their appeal. For those who want to see Tai's saga - including live footage of his birth - Animal Planet will première a documentary, "A Panda is Born," on Dec. 10 at 8 p.m. (EST).