- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2000

Washington is still waiting to find out for sure who will take over the White House, but the city welcomed another new first family yesterday two giant pandas sent special delivery from China.

A FedEx jumbo cargo jet dubbed "Panda One," complete with pictures of pandas on its sides, touched down at Washington Dulles International Airport just before 3 p.m. The plane's arrival drew cheers from those gathered in the chilly weather to welcome two-and-a-half-year-old female Mei Xiang and three-and-a half-year-old male Tian Tian.

The panda cubs, destined to become the star attraction at the National Zoo, took off from Chengdu, China, on Wednesday morning for the 17-hour flight to Dulles.

Secure in white steel containers, the pandas were loaded onto a truck for the trip to the zoo, where they will be quarantined for about 30 days before the public will be able to see them.

Tian Tian seemed to know his fans were waiting, as he stuck his round, black-and-white head to the top of his cage so the crowd could see him through an opening.

"These guys were just laid back," said Capt. Mike Padron, the pilot for the final leg of the trip, which began six hours earlier in Anchorage, Alaska.

"I got to tell you, you look at a panda and you get an instant smile," Capt. Padron said, adding the trip was the most meaningful he had ever made.

The nearly hourlong drive to the zoo was like a presidential motorcade, complete with police escorts and secret backup routes.

A television helicopter was set to record the cross-town journey from the air, recalling the similarly televised transport of the Florida presidential-election ballots to Tallahassee. And it wouldn't have been difficult to follow either, officials said, because a picture of the pandas was painted on the roof of the truck.

The pandas, on loan from China for 10 years, will spend their days at the renovated Panda House at the zoo in Northwest. The panda residence has been vacant since November 1999, when the second of two pandas donated by China in 1972 Hsing-Hsing was euthanized.

The other, Ling-Ling, died of heart failure in 1992.

In receipt of the pandas, the National Zoo will donate $1 million in private funds a year to the China Wildlife Conservation Association. Over the next decade, the Chinese con

servation group will use the money to expand and improve the pandas' natural habitat in 26 of China's reserves.

Benjamin Beck, associate director of the National Zoo, said during a press conference after the pandas' arrival that the two animals are quite fond of each other.

"They are absolutely in love," Dr. Beck said.

Zoo officials don't expect the pair to mate for several more years.

Both bears were born at a research center in China. Mei Xiang's name means "beautiful fragrance" and Tian Tian means "more and more."

The two pandas look almost identical, but Mei Xiang has black "stockings" and the black band across her shoulders is wider in the middle.

Tian Tian has black "knee socks" and two black dots across the bridge of his nose.

Dr. Beck said the zoo's work with the pandas will help ensure that the endangered species can be protected.

"This is going to work," Dr. Beck said. "We are going to save giant pandas."

Scientists estimate there are about 1,000 pandas left in mountainous central China.

The zoo's new additions will join five other pandas in the United States. Three live at the San Diego Zoo and two at Zoo Atlanta. About 140 pandas live in zoos only 20 of them outside of China.

Karen L. Morgan and her two children 6-year-old Taylor and 9-year-old Connor said they were thrilled to see the arrival of Washington's newest residents.

"They wrestle around a lot and that's a particular favorite of mine," Connor said, noting that he and his little sister left school early to watch the pandas.

Mrs. Morgan, who is a FedEx employee, said the pandas are a treasure.

"They are so exotic. They are so reachable," Mrs. Morgan said. "They look like something you can touch."

"And cute," chimed in Taylor, who has a stuffed panda named "Bamboo."

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