- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2001

Sometimes you can love a panda so much you'll stand under an umbrella in the cold drizzle just to catch a glimpse of the shy creature.

Clad in bulky winter jackets and warm coats, more than 1,000 panda lovers did just that yesterday. And they were more than happy to shiver outside the Giant Panda House where Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, Washington's agile and playful giant panda cubs, have become the National Zoo's most popular residents.

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About 250,000 visitors have stopped by mostly in good weather to see Washington's newest sweethearts, who moved into the Giant Panda House less than seven weeks ago.

It seems to take more than frigid temperatures to keep fans away from seeing the 2 and 1/2-year-old female, Mei Xiang, and the 3 and 1/2-year-old male, Tian Tian,

who made their debut Jan. 10.

Early visitors yesterday did catch a glimpse of the cubs, who spent most of the morning playing outside under the cold drizzle. That's because pandas love cold, rainy days, according to zoo volunteers, who have learned quite a bit about the animals, which are from the mountains of China.

"Why wouldn't we come?" asked Roger Brathwaite, of Northeast D.C., as he and his three young sons watched the cubs take an afternoon nap inside the Panda House yesterday afternoon. "Rain isn't going to stand in our way. We figured we could actually get a better shot of seeing them up close because there wouldn't be that many crowds around because of the rain."

By 2 p.m., zoo officials said they had counted 1,291 visitors at the panda's residence, where the doors opened at 8 a.m. The number of visitors was expected to grow by day's end.

"Nothing will keep us away from seeing these two play," said Marta Wayling of Olney, Md., who stood underneath a panda-decorated umbrella outside the Panda House with her 5-year-old daughter, Samantha.

"We just can't believe there are other people like us here on a rainy day," Mrs. Wayling said, as she watched more visitors, garbed in raincoats or ponchos, walking toward the Panda House. "I guess we're not the only ones who enjoy watching these cubs, no matter what it's like outside."

Warmer temperatures on Saturday brought out between 21,000 and 23,000 visitors, possibly the largest crowd since the animals arrived in Washington in December, some zoo employees estimated yesterday.

And zoo officials predict the crowds are only going to get bigger. "We're preparing for larger-than-ever crowds this summer," said one employee who works near the giant panda exhibit. "It's only going to get busier."

So why the fascination with pandas?

"It's the 'cute' factor," said Jim McNeal of Reston, Va., who got up close enough to watch the pandas nap yesterday afternoon.

"It's the cuddliness too," his wife, Ilene, interjected as they walked around the panda exhibit after talking about the bears with a volunteer. "And they're exotic, too. It's wonderful to watch them play. It's incredible. It's definitely worth walking in the rain to see them."

The McNeals specifically chose to go to the zoo yesterday so they could avoid the crowds. "This is the best time to go," Mr. McNeal said.

Mario Rodas of New York City, didn't waste any time stopping by the zoo to see the pandas several hours after his flight landed yesterday morning. He said he was planning to come by and see the bears again this weekend, before he returns home.

"I've been to the zoo before and there was always something missing when the pandas weren't here," Mr. Rodas said. "So I had to come to see them. They're really cute."

Dubbed as ambassadors for conservation, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian 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.

The pair, born at the Chinese Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong, spend their days at the renovated Panda House at the 163-acre zoo in Northwest.

Before the cubs' arrival, the panda residence had been vacant since November 1999, when the second of two pandas donated by China in 1972 Hsing-Hsing was euthanized. Hsing-Hsing's mate, Ling-Ling, died of heart failure in 1992.

Hsing-Hsing, who drew about 3 million visitors a year, arguably was one of the most popular zoo animals in the country.

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