- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2001

National Zoo officials yesterday named a 6-year-old Rockville boy the 1 millionth visitor to the zoos Giant Panda House since its two new residents, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, made their public debut Jan. 10.
Matthew Furda was on a field trip with about 50 kindergarten classmates from St. Judes Catholic School in Rockville when he was plucked from a line entering the panda exhibit shortly before 10 a.m. His father, Mark Furda, had taken the day off from his construction contracting business to chaperone the trip.
"We never expected any of this," said Mr. Furda, 35. "The first thing he wanted to see was the pandas, and, lo and behold, he was the 1 millionth visitor."
Matthew, who seemed overwhelmed by the attention, was presented with gifts by the zoo and sponsors Fujifilm and Animal Planet, including a digital camera, a rolling luggage cart and a sports bag. He posed for pictures and was given a certificate to commemorate the day, but he seemed most entranced by a book of stickers he found in the sports bag.
Mr. Furda said the family visits the zoo often — he displayed his Friends of the National Zoo membership card — but said this was Matthews first trip to see the new exhibit. The pandas, though, reacted to the event with characteristic indifference.
Tian Tian spent most of the celebration with his head buried in a cardboard box coated with honey. Zoo officials confessed they had left the box in a prominent spot to coax the 4-year-old male into public view. Mei Xiang, the 3-year-old female, decided to sleep in and was nowhere in sight.
The pair, who arrived at the zoo in December, are on a 10-year loan from the China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda. They follow two other pandas who were given as a gift from the Chinese government after President Nixons historic visit in 1972. Ling-Ling, a female panda, died in 1992, and Hsing-Hsing, a male panda, died in 1999.
About 1,000 pandas live in the wild, with another 140 in breeding centers and zoos in China. Twenty live in zoos outside China, including two other panda pairs that live at zoos in Atlanta and San Diego.
In exchange for Mei Xiang, which translates to "beautiful fragrance," and Tian Tian, which means "more and more," the National Zoo donates $1 million annually for giant panda conservation projects in China.
"The giant pandas have clearly revitalized the zoo," National Zoo Director Lucy Spelman said. "It really felt like we were missing something."
Exit surveys show that 90 percent of visitors to the zoo stop at the panda house. So far, 48 percent of visitors have come from the metropolitan area, while 52 percent are from out of town.
Clint Fields, executive director of the Friends of the National Zoo, said the group expected the pandas would be the zoos main attraction but couldnt predict the exhibit would reach 1 million visitors in just 114 days.
"What surprised us was some people have come out here in some fairly miserable weather," Mr. Fields said. The 1 millionth visitor was calculated from daily tabulations. Each visitor to the panda house is counted, so officials can determine the most densely trafficked days and times. About three weeks ago, officials started to make an estimate of when the 1 millionth visitor might arrive.
"We were almost right on target," Mr. Fields said, adding that the zoo finished Wednesday night within 200 people of a million.


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