- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2001

Washington's new panda pair seemingly unfazed by the horde of onlooking camera crews, officials and children moseyed into an enclosed yard for their public debut yesterday and ate high-fiber biscuits in the cold.

"We are certain that this will be a 'wow' exhibit," said Dr. Lucy Spelman, director of the National Zoo. "We … introduce to you not one, but two giant pandas."

Mei Xiang, the 2 and 1/2-year-old female panda, lingered close to the door leading from the zoo's Panda House to the yard while Tian Tian, the 3 and 1/2-year-old male, quickly made his way to the treats left atop a grotto.

"True to his personality, he's up there," said Senior Curator Lisa Stevens as some in the crowd clapped. "He's food-motivated."

It didn't take the pandas long to each grab a bamboo branch and munch on it while sitting and leaning against the grotto, to the delight of visitors.

The pandas who spent the last month adjusting to the zoo in quarantine are on loan from China at a cost of $1 million a year over a 10-year period.

The privately raised money goes to the China Wildlife Conservation Association to be used to expand and improve the protected panda habitat in China.

More than 200 people had lined up prior to the 11 a.m. opening of the much-anticipated free exhibit, some arriving as early as 7:15 a.m.

Children from Lafayette and Walker-Jones elementary schools in the District, however, were the first to see the cubs. Officials allowed the youths, with American and Chinese flags in hand, to press up against the railing overlooking the yard.

Visitors bought panda T-shirts and stuffed animals. Volunteers reminded everyone that pandas eat about 50 pounds of bamboo a day.

Mothers took children out of school for the event, and at least one teacher skipped class.

"We both should be in school," said Maura Backenstoe, a teacher from Bradley Hills Elementary in Bethesda, Md., who woke up at 6 a.m. and was first in line with daughter Sarah, 6. "My principal knows we have panda-itis."

"How much longer now?" asked Sarah, dressed in a cloth panda costume with the head and ears and clutching a stuffed panda.

After the first group passed through the exhibit, Andrea Reed, 29, said her two home-schooled children probably don't understand the importance of what they just experienced.

"This is a big day," the Virginia woman said, holding Micah, 3, and keeping an eye on 8-year-old Ashton. "I think even if they don't see the importance of it, they'll know when they see it on the news in five years."

Brittany Stickland, 10, of Stafford, summed up the day in her own words: "A whole bunch of other people were at school, and we're having fun."

Yesterday marked the reopening of the exhibit. Two other pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, first occupied the house and yards at the Northwest park in 1972, a gift from China during the Nixon administration. Both pandas died without bearing surviving offspring.

"Now, 29 years later, we are glad that Tian Tian and Mei Xiang are here, not only to take their place, but to rekindle the once-famous panda mania," said Liu Xiaoming, representing the Chinese ambassador.

Zoo officials are optimistic the new pair could mate in a few years. Only about 1,000 endangered pandas still live in the wild, in Chinese bamboo forests at high altitudes.

Before the creatures emerged yesterday, a group of Chinese dignitaries presented the zoo with a rolled-up picture depicting Wolong in the Sichuan Province of China, where Mei Xiang and Tian Tian were born in captivity.

"After it's framed on the wall and the pandas are missing their home, they can just look at the picture," one dignitary noted through a translator.

The renovated panda house is outfitted with cameras, and the creatures will be the source of extensive research. A new home, to open in 2003, will be built adjacent to the old one.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, dubbed "ambassadors for conservation," are on exhibit each day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. No one will be permitted in line after 4:30 p.m.

"The waiting is over," said Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small. "I think today offers all the excitement of the Oscars or a presidential election, but it doesn't have any of the disappointment because you don't have to choose one favorite."

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