- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2014

A 5-month-old toddler who is arguably China’s No. 2 diplomat to the United States makes her first public appearance this weekend.

Starting Saturday, the public is invited to visit Bao Bao, the Smithsonian National Zoo’s giant panda cub — even if she’s not awake for her audience.

“She’s sleeping 20 hours or more a day,” animal keeper Marty Dearie said. “It’s very possible that’s all you’ll see. You’ll get to watch a sleeping cub, but she’s still very cute.”

Fans have had only the streamed images from two online cameras to satisfy their cuteness quota since Bao Bao’s birth in August. Since then, the squealing pink creature no bigger than a stick of butter has transformed into what animal keepers call “a little ball of cuteness.”

Bao Bao tips the scales at 16.9 pounds, and her body is covered in a thick black-and-white fur coat, which keepers said helps cushion her if she tumbles while exploring her den.

Like any other toddler, Bao Bao is learning how to walk and explore her surroundings. She waddles pigeon-toed around her inside enclosure that she shares with mom Mei Xiang, and slowly and carefully scales low ledges.

“You gasp when she falls off a rock, but if she’s only 17 or 18 pounds, that’s an awful lot of fur there,” said Rosalyn Jones, a Friends of the National Zoo member who got a sneak peak at Bao Bao last weekend. “She’s just adorable.”

Bao Bao also is being trained to trust her keepers.

“We’re training her to orient toward us,” said Brandie Smith, senior curator and curator of giant pandas. “We want to make sure she sees us as nothing but positive.”

This training will make it easier for checkups, and hopefully one day testing for a pregnancy.

“China is very hands-on,” Ms. Smith said.

Bao Bao eventually will make her way to China to fulfill a contractual agreement. “We want to be positive because humans will always be a part of her life,” Ms. Smith said.

Giant pandas are endangered, with about 1,600 living in central China’s mountain forests, according to zoo officials. About 300 reside in zoos and breeding around the world, mostly in China. A total of 14 giant pandas are housed at four U.S. zoos, including the National Zoo.

All of the giant pandas on display in the U.S. are on loan from China’s government. Before a zoo is loaned any pandas, it must demonstrate that it has the resources for research that can help the animals in the wild and in captivity.

Bao Bao — the daughter of the zoo’s resident pandas Tian Tian and Mei Xiang — was born Aug. 23. A second, stillborn cub was recovered by zoo staff a day later. Bao Bao received her name on Dec. 1, 100 days after her birth, per Chinese tradition. The name means “precious” or “treasure,” and received the most public votes among five suggested names.

Bao Bao has big paw prints to fill. Her elder brother, Tai Shan, was born in 2005 and quickly became one of the most famous and popular residents of the District.

Tai Shan was born after officials tried unsuccessfully for decades to mate Washington’s first pair of pandas. During 20 years together at the zoo, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling produced five cubs, but none of them survived.

Tai Shan was so popular that the zoo extended his two-year residency by an additional three years.

Smithsonian Institution figures show that in 2005, 1.8 million people visited the zoo compared with 2.6 million visitors after Tai Shan went on display in 2006.

Mei Xiang gave birth in 2012, but the cub died a week later from underdeveloped lungs and liver damage.

Animal keeper Laurie Thompson said Bao Bao has explored only her inside enclosure, but crews are cub-proofing the outside yard “to make sure she can’t get anywhere she’s not supposed to. She’s building up muscle, learning how to climb.”

Ms. Smith said the management of the cubs has changed between Tai Shan and Bao Bao.

“We used to be more direct,” Ms. Smith said. “We’d keep mom outside longer. I don’t really like that. So we’ve given Mei Xiang more choices now than with Tai Shan. She seems to like to spend more time inside than outside.”

Keepers credit Mei Xiang as a good mother who knows when it’s nursing time but allows her cub to explore.

“At the beginning, the cub takes up all her time and resources,” Ms. Thompson said. But as Bao Bao has grown, Mei Xiang has been comfortable leaving her cub for periods of time so she can eat.

“When Bao Bao needs to be nursed, Mei Xiang will pick her up,” Mr. Dearie said. “She’s a good mother.”

What’s tricky, however, is that Bao Bao now is drinking only milk, making treat-giving tricky because anything she could want she can get from her mother.

“She’s mouthing at bamboo,” Ms. Smith said. “She is getting tastes of apple juice, but calories come from mom.”

Keepers agreed that the panda house’s newest addition is an easy-going resident.

“She’s really laid back so far,” Ms. Thompson said. “She doesn’t mind us picking her up.”

Sporting a “Keep Calm and Panda On” T-shirt beneath her coat, Cyndi Anderson said she had become interested in giant pandas after watching Tai Shan on the panda cams.

“I was really, really excited,” said the Reston resident, adding that she set two alarms so she could wake up and stand in line at 5 a.m. “Mei Xiang is one of the most classically beautiful pandas. It’s wonderful to see her.”

Amy O’Keefe, 37, of McLean, brought her sons Ethan, 4, and Adam, 2, to the Friends of the National Zoo debut. She said she was able to use Bao Bao’s birth and development as a teaching lesson at her son’s school.

The bad weather last week had the family second guessing the debut, Ms. O’Keefe said, but “when I woke up this morning I was thinking about the baby panda.”

Public debut of giant panda cub Bao Bao
Smithsonian National Zoo, David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat, 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW
: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday through Monday; Tuesday and after, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Free. Zoo officials said visitors should get in line at the Asia Trail entrance closest to Connecticut Avenue.

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