- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2014

On a Friday afternoon last year, animal keepers and thousands of people online watched with a mix of anticipation and excitement as a hairless, helpless giant panda cub was born at the National Zoo.

A year later, the newborn that was small enough to fit on a butter dish, has grown to 40 pounds and is so independent that she occasionally delays the afternoon plans — and interviews — of her keepers.

Bao Bao will turn 1 year old Saturday, and the zoo is inviting her legions of fans to help celebrate the milestone.

Birthday festivities, scheduled from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., will include panda talks from keepers and a frozen cake for the cub. Human celebrants can try a cold noodle dish from China’s Sichuan province, a nod to the location of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong.

“There’s nothing like a panda cub to bring people to the zoo,” said National Zoo animal keeper Nicole MacCorkle.

The sight of pandas at play is a magnet for crowds. "There's nothing like a panda cub to bring people to the zoo," said National Zoo animal keeper Nicole MacCorkle. (Photographs by Keith Lane/Special to The Washington Times)
The sight of pandas at play is a magnet for crowds. “There’s ... more >

Although the zoo doesn’t keep specific numbers for the crowds that line up at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat, officials said overall visitation is up 30 percent this year.

Bao Bao made her public debut in January, although just about every moment of her life, including her birth, has been viewed through the zoo’s two online cameras for its giant pandas.

“It’s like reality TV,” Ms. MacCorkle said. “Everybody knows what we do; they feel more connected.”

That connection has helped Bao Bao endear herself to people around the world.

Her name, which means “precious” or “treasure,” was chosen through a monthlong online poll that collected more than 123,000 votes. Her naming ceremony in December drew local dignitaries and video messages from the first ladies of the U.S. and China.

When the panda cameras were turned off during the partial federal government shutdown in October, the online community was in an uproar.

This month, Bao Bao was dubbed the most iconic acquisition in the Smithsonian Institution system, beating out the Star-Spangled Banner, the Space Shuttle Discovery and even a portrait of George Washington.

Bao Bao, zoo officials said, is one of 42 surviving giant panda cubs born last year and the second surviving cub in nearly a decade for the National Zoo.

Her brother, Tai Shan, was born in 2005.

Their mother, Mei Xiang, and father, Tian Tian, arrived in Washington in December 2000 as part of a $10 million exchange agreement with the Chinese government that ends in December 2015.

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