- 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.”

PHOTOS: Take a bow, Bao Bao — the National Zoo's new panda poses for the cameras

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.

Story Continues →