Wednesday, January 10, 2001

Gift shops at the National Zoo are stocked with panda toasters. Dozens of exhibit volunteers have memorized panda dietary habits. Fences are in place to keep the panda faithful in order.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the agile and playful giant panda cubs on loan from China, emerge today from their month-long quarantine to be greeted by an eager American public for the first time.

“Everybody’s very, very excited,” says Dr. Lucy Spelman, director of the National Zoo. “For us, this is a really positive event because we’re continuing our giant panda program. Giant pandas were part of this place for 28 years.”

Zoo officials expect 70 or more journalists from as far away as Tokyo to join dignitaries and schoolchildren in kicking off what is sure to become one of the city’s most visited attractions.

The public will be admitted to the free exhibit beginning at 11 a.m., after a ceremony with Chinese Ambassador Li Zhaoxing and Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small, among other officials scheduled to be in attendance.

The pandas will make their entrance during the ceremony at 10:30 a.m.

After the first day, the pandas will be on display in their house and yards every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. However, no one will be permitted in line after 4:30 p.m.

Officials expect to move the crowd into the exhibit area in groups of 150 for 10-minute visits. That, of course, is subject to crowd sizes. Visitors will be cordoned off behind a white plastic fence along Olmsted Walk and taken past the prairie dogs.

The gift shops are stocked with everything from a $200 life-size stuffed panda to the already popular toasters, which sell for $65 and imprint a panda face in the bread.

Dr. Spelman says she expects about a 20 percent increase in visitation during the year.

“We expect certainly large crowds for the next several weeks and everybody’s gearing up for it,” says Alex Hawes, a spokesman for Friends of the National Zoo, which handles parking and concessions. “Our staff is used to dealing with big crowds.”

The 2 and 1/2-year-old female, Mei Xiang, meaning “beautiful fragrance,” and the 3 and 1/2-year-old male, Tian Tian, meaning “more and more” were born at the Chinese Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong.

They did not live together in China, but the pandas were acquainted before coming to the zoo.

While it is difficult to tell the pair apart, Mei Xiang has black “stockings.” The black band across her shoulders is wider in the middle, and she has a pale black bar across the bridge of her nose.

Tian Tian has black “knee socks,” and the black band across his shoulders narrows in the middle. He has two black dots across the bridge of his nose.

Mei Xiang weighs about 140 pounds and Tian Tian about 220. Both have gained five to 10 pounds since their arrival in the United States last month and likely will gain 50 to 60 more as they grow.

The creatures spend more than half the day eating, and they take in about 50 pounds each of locally grown yellow groove bamboo. They also enjoy treats such as carrots, apples and cooked sweet potatoes. They are not very picky.

“So far, they’ve eaten everything,” says zoo spokesman Bob Hoage.

Mei Xiang is still “cublike,” zoo staff members say. She makes “squealy” noises and has a demanding side. Tian Tian sees people as food suppliers.

“Both of them are very people-oriented,” says senior curator Lisa Stevens, who works closely with the pandas.

“They’ve surprised us with how easy they’ve been in their adjustment,” Dr. Spelman says.

The Panda House at the Northwest park had been empty since November 1999, when Hsing-Hsing, the last of two pandas donated by China during the Nixon administration, was euthanized. The 28-year-old animal suffered from kidney disease.

Hsing-Hsing, who drew about 3 million visitors a year, arguably was one of the most popular zoo animals in the country. His mate, Ling-Ling, died of a heart attack in 1992. None of their cubs survived.

Pandas reach breeding maturity between 4 and 10 years of age, and when Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are old enough, veterinarians will attempt to mate them. Any offspring, however, will be the property of China.

The old exhibit area has undergone a $1.8 million renovation, with rock and tree structures for the cubs to climb on, sand wallows for them to roll and “bathe” in and several “microclimates.”

Outside in the 17,500-square-foot yard are an air-cooled grotto and a water-cooled grotto. Each resembles a shallow open cave and measure 8 feet wide, 4 feet deep and 5 feet tall.

Keepers hope the grottos will attract the pandas outside in the summer, when they usually prefer the cool indoors. Also in the yard are mist and fog areas and a grove of trees, including the Sichuan species of firs, hemlocks and shrubs.

Inside, the Giant Panda Behavior Research Station, with computer consoles and working scientists, is visible through glass doors.

Dr. Spelman stresses that beyond entertainment, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian will provide valuable data which can be shared with the international community.

Three glass-fronted rectangular enclosures for the pandas measure 25 feet by 30 feet. They contain simulated rock work, pools and murals depicting the mountainous Sichuan Province.

Video cameras and motion detectors installed throughout the exhibit will record the habits and preferences of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian.

About 50 Friends of the National Zoo volunteers will take turns answering questions at the exhibit and explain the zoo’s program of research designed to protect the species from further depletion.

They will use a replica panda skull, bamboo and a model of “panda poop,” as well as teaching techniques learned from the 55-page “Giant Panda Exhibit Training Manual.”

Some volunteers will be involved with the “behavior watch” research, keeping an eye on how the pandas interact with their new surroundings.

“This is something we’ve waited for for a long time,” says volunteer supervisor Pam Mercer. “This is great that they’re here and we finally get to talk about them.”

As part of a loan agreement, the National Zoo will contribute $1 million in private funds to the China Wildlife Conservation Association each year for 10 years.

That money will be used to expand and improve the protected panda habitat in China, represented by 26 reserves. It also will support scientific research and professional training in China to promote the long-term conservation of the endangered species.

Only about 1,000 pandas still live in the wild, in Chinese bamboo forests at altitudes of 5,000 to 10,000 feet. They are bearlike in shape, and adults are 4 feet to 6 feet long and weigh up to 350 pounds.

The pandas arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport in style on Dec. 6. Federal Express, one of the contributing corporate sponsors, flew the cubs aboard a specially equipped MD-11 jet dubbed “FedEx PandaOne” from Chengdu, China, to Dulles via Alaska.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian along with their custom-built transport containers, some bamboo snacks and American and Chinese handlers were the only cargo aboard the 17-hour trans-Pacific flight.

After arriving at the airport, the pandas were loaded onto a truck for the nearly hourlong trip to the zoo. The drive resembled a presidential motorcade, complete with police escorts and secret backup routes.

While the pandas are living in the existing panda facilities at the zoo, a new, adjacent permanent exhibit space with climate-control technologies will be built.

Fujifilm, which donated $7.8 million toward the panda effort, is supporting construction of the new home, which will be designed based upon the studies of Mei Xiang’s and Tian Tian’s preferences.

The exhibit space, with perches for climbing and rocky ledges, is scheduled to open in 2003.

The scene around the zoo yesterday was in sharp contrast to what today promises to be.

Among the few visitors, Elizabyth and Kimberly Hiscox of Nevada City, Calif., said they didn’t mean to miss the pandas by one day.

“It’s been in the national news,” said Elizabyth, 22. “It’s good that it’s going to bring about excitement for the zoo.

“We’re excited, but I wish we could see them,” said a disappointed Loyanne Ornstein of Mohegan Lake, N.Y., bundled in the cold with daughter Chelsie, 5. “I hope they do well here.”

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