Black and white and cute all over

My favorite attraction at the National Zoo has never been the giant panda house, for which there is often a long line. It's not that I'm immune to the roly-poly charm of its wildly popular inhabitants, whose images appear on the zoo's logo and many a souvenir.

But whenever I get to Washington and have some free time for the zoo, I make straight for the pachyderms - and for Kandula in particular. From the first moment I spied him in the elephant yard - a mere baby trying to keep up with his mother without tripping on his trunk - I was smitten. I've followed his growth and progress over subsequent years (he just turned 4), as I suspect millions of others around the world have done on their own visits or via the zoo's webcams (www. nationalzoo.si.edu).

On a recent trip to the nation's capital and stroll through Woodley Park, I found Kandula thriving - all 3,500 pounds (and growing!) of him. He still often follows his mother about, but emerging along with his tusks is a fast-growing streak of independence. There is nothing babyish about him any longer, which isn't to say he doesn't captivate me still.

Meanwhile, back at the panda house, the lines are longer than ever thanks to the July birth of Tai Shan, who tipped the scales at about 30 pounds when I was there.(More than a hundred of him to one Kandula!)

At first I didn't join the waiting ranks for an up-close view. But at lunch one day I squeezed in among a throng overlooking the panda's outdoor exercise yard from a small food kiosk and picnic area called - what else? - the Panda Cafe.

I was fortunate, for there below was little Tai Shan and his mom, putting on an unscripted show. The baby panda riveted the adoring crowd without even trying. We "oohed" and "aahed" with his every move, glancing at one another in self-conscious but irrepressible delight. When he slipped from a low log onto his bottom and rolled to one side like a weighted top, all social barriers above him dissolved: Our spontaneous laughter rolled like a wave.

I then glanced into another area, off limits to the public but with an equally captivated audience. As a part of the zoo's plan to develop a major new habitat area (the Asia Trail), the giant panda yard is undergoing expansion, and the hard-hat area directly overlooks the present yard.

All work had stopped for several weeks after Tai Shan's birth to avoid disturbing the pandas, but it resumed gradually as they became accustomed to the noise. By now, the project was again in full swing. I was tickled to see a half-dozen construction workers spending their own midday break panda watching.

A few mornings later, I returned to the almost-empty Panda Cafeas a mild January dawn broke. Several joggers and I gazed down to find that the pandas were also up and active. Tai Shan was busily harassing his mom, climbing up her rounded back, grabbing the nape of her neck with his teeth, pulling and twisting, falling off, and climbing back.

She gave him a light push when he hugged her face as she munched her bamboo. Now and then she interrupted her meal simply to put a gentle paw on him.

Over behind the orange construction tape, one fellow, setting stone, glanced over his shoulder now and then. Another simply stood, hammer in hand, for a good 10 minutes, unable to take his eyes off the pair. Maybe he was on an early break; maybe it was paid time ticking by. Either way it struck me as right to be building the place with the pandas in mind.

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