Baby panda Tai Shan leaves American home for his native land

Born in the US, panda Tai Shan won the hearts of visitors to Washington's National Zoo. But under an agreement with China, he'll now be part of a panda breeding program there.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Giant Panda bear Tai Shan, 4, eats an apple in his enclosure at the National Zoo in Washington, Friday. Under an agreement with China's government Tai Shan will relocate permanently to Sichuan, China in early 2010 to begin his participation in a breeding program.
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In virtually all cases, babies born on US soil are American citizens, even when their parents are foreign. One exception is that of panda bear cubs born in US zoos to parents lent by the Chinese government.

Those cubs may have seen their first light of day from American soil; they may have grown up consuming American bamboo. But they remain Chinese, under the terms of the agreement worked out between American zoos and China, the species' native land.

The citizens of Washington, D.C., were reminded of that bittersweet exception Friday when the Washington zoo announced that Tai Shan, the panda who captured the capital city's heart when he was born at the zoo in 2005, will leave "home" for China early next year.

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Tai Shan, or "Tai" as the male bear has come to be known, had this sometimes divisive and cutthroat town from the moment he emerged from his mother the size of a stick of butter.

The love affair continued as he grew and frolicked in the zoo's panda compound, drawing millions of devoted fans in his four short years.

But Tai Shan is an adolescent now, and it is apparently time for him to put away childish things and face his responsibilities as a healthy male in a dwindling species. He is needed back in China.

"While we're very, very sad Tai Shan is leaving, we take enormous pride that he is a normal, healthy cub," said Steve Monfort, acting director at the National Zoo, in announcing Tai's imminent departure.

"He is an ambassador," Mr. Monfort added. "He provides hope for the conservation of an iconic species."

There are 14 pandas on loan from China to US zoos in Atlanta; Memphis, Tenn.; San Diego; and Washington. The San Diego Zoo has already sent two cubs back to China, and is scheduled, along with Atlanta, to send off additional cubs soon.

The National Zoo has had pandas since President Nixon opened the way to US relations with China. All were loved and doted on, but as a born Washingtonian, Tai Shan was special. The mayor once dubbed him the city's first citizen. He's set to grace a postage stamp.

Tai's parents, mom Mei Xiang and dad Tian Tian, are in Washington under a 10-year agreement that expires next year. Zoo officials say they hope to extend the loan of the panda couple, unless they, too, are needed back in China.

In that case, they'll be missed – but somehow in a different way from native son Tai Shan.

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See also:

Thailand: Panda-monium for newest Thai superstar

China extends a friendly bear paw across Taiwan Strait

Meet Washington's adorable VIP (very important panda)

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