- The Washington Times - Monday, May 21, 2001

It was no surprise that the Friends of the National Zoos annual fund-raising event, ZooFari, was dubbed "Panda Extravaganza" this year. The undisputed stars of the zoo are Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the giant pandas who flew into town from China last December after some diplomatic wrangling and with much fanfare.

Since January, more than 1 million people have visited the $1.8-million, state-of-the-art panda pen, and a good chunk of them went home with a stuffed panda bear or two: The zoo´s gift shop brought in $1.36 million during the three months following the bears´ arrival and much of that was panda paraphernalia.

Around 4,000 guests paid $110 and up to attend Thursday night´s ZooFari 2001. The money raised organizers hoped to beat last year´s net of $375,000 from the Frog Fandango (frogs, after all, are so much less cuddly) is earmarked for FONZ´s Giant Panda Conservation Fund. (The zoo´s new director, Lucy Spelman, wasn´t at the extravaganza because she´s in China visiting the panda reserves that will benefit from some of this fund raising.)

But, perhaps inevitably, consumption rather than conservation seemed to be on the minds of the ZooFari crowd. As they do every year, more than 100 restaurants and 17 wineries set up tasting booths along the zoo´s very crowded walking paths, which made for a stomach-stretching bonanza that included everything from Starbucks coffee to sweet, slippery oysters on the half-shell (courtesy of Old Ebbitt Grill) to savory smoked buffalo ribs (from New Heights).

Les Halles presented its usual ZooFari specialty, a warm concoction of potatoes, portobello mushrooms and goat cheese, while Black´s Bar and Kitchen showed off beef tenderloin with toasted macadamia nuts. The Palm´s executive chef, Sang Ek, whipped up 1,500 crab cakes for the event. "I don´t even want to think about it," he said with a sigh, his fatigue mixed with a touch of pride.

Restaurants did what they could to entice more tasters. Terence Ryan, an owner of Ristorante Terrazza, stood conspicuously in front of his booth in a full panda costume. "Last year I was a frog," he said. "And the year before that I was a tiger."

For the guests, of course, some self-control and strategic sampling was in order. Ten-year ZooFari veteran Cookie Allen, who held a paper plate with about seven different desserts, said she has the routine down: "What I´ve learned to do is when you find a dessert you like, take it, because it won´t be there later."

More advice? Come hungry and come early. By 7:30 p.m. people already were elbowing their way toward Bread and Chocolate´s irresistible strawberry Napoleons. Musical entertainment was provided by Gene Chandler (billed as the original "Duke of Earl"), the Fabulettes, Dr. Feel Good and others, and a silent auction offered such diverse prizes as a Los Angeles Lakers jersey signed by Magic Johnson, an IBM laptop and a 3-foot-tall stuffed panda.

Meanwhile, the real pandas, which were left to their own devices while the humans feasted, ate their usual low-fat dinner of bamboo and carrots.

The zoo is technically renting Mei Xiang (which means, perhaps inappropriately, "beautiful fragrance") and Tian Tian ("more and more") from the China Wildlife Conservation Association in Beijing for $1 million a year for 10 years.

Though the Smithsonian has been doing some serious budget cutting, the pandas are safe from the axe. Corporate sponsors like Fujifilm — which donated $7.8 million for the new panda habitat — have been eager to be associated with such a nice, fuzzy cause. Lisa Stevens, a senior curator at the zoo who has been working with pandas for 14 years, said she´s grown attached to this playful couple, just as she did to the previous panda pair, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, which arrived in 1972.

"Each panda has its own personality," she explained, noting that the public seems to be drawn to the bears, at least in part, because of the animals´ unique appearance. "They resemble our toddlers. They have big heads, their eyes look big because of the black circles, they´re pudgy, they waddle."

Clinton Fields, FONZ´s executive director, agreed.

"I think they remind people of human infants, maybe subconsciously," he said at the VIP party in the panda exhibit area. Behind him, 4-year-old Tian Tian waddled around his expensive playpen, to the crowd´s delight. And, Mr. Fields added, "We hope that a part of their attraction is that they´re highly endangered."

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