- The Washington Times - Friday, August 2, 2002

Tian Tian, one of the National Zoo's giant pandas, shambled over to Mei Xiang wanting to play yesterday, but when Mei Xiang barked at him, he quickly walked away. He knows better.

"People think they are fighting, but they aren't. They get along great," said Lisa Stevens, associate curator of giant pandas and primates at the zoo. "A year and a half ago, he would have continued. Now he's like, 'Oh, I'm out of here.'"

More than a thousand visitors yesterday wished the two giant pandas a happy birthday at the zoo in Northwest.

Tian Tian (pronounced tee-YEN tee-YEN) was born on Aug. 27, 1997, and Mei Xiang (pronounced may-SHONG) was born on July 22, 1998. The pair, from China, are the National Zoo's second set of giant pandas, here on a 10-year loan since 2000.

The pandas seemed unaware of the hundreds of people standing only a few feet away, enjoying free birthday cake.

Mei Xiang snacked on an ice block of honey water to keep cool until Tian Tian came over and knocked it into the dirt.

"They're maturing," said zoo Director Lucy Spelman. "They're doing great with each other."

While the pandas are one of the most popular zoo attractions, officials said they also are the basis for extensive research on the endangered species.

About a thousand giant pandas remain in the wild.

Miss Spelman said the panda program "not an exhibit" serves as a model for other attractions in the zoo, which she hopes to transform from simple exhibits to full-scale research projects.

"Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are just the tip of the iceberg, a part of a much broader program," she said.

The pandas, whom zoo officials hope will reproduce, had been separated for about three months after Tian Tian roughed up the much smaller Mei Xiang in a mating attempt. They are back together now.

National Zoo scientists have studied the pair's behavior since they arrived, marking the way they interact.

And the zoo staff has the rare opportunity of watching pandas grow up, an opportunity they didn't have with Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, who were given to the zoo as a gift from China in 1972.

Ling-Ling died in 1992 at age 23, and Hsing-Hsing died in 1999 at 28.

Five keepers are assigned to Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, performing duties ranging from cleaning the enclosure to keeping the pandas active and on a healthy diet.

Except for bamboo and special biscuits, the pandas like many of the same kinds of food as humans: corn, apples, honey and baked sweet potatoes.

Clutching a small, stuffed panda, 4-year-old Natasha Brennan didn't hesitate when thinking of her favorite panda trait. "They eat bamboo," she said, smiling.

"She loves pandas. She wanted to come," said her mother, Emma Brennan of Northwest.

As onlookers gradually moved to the elephant exhibit nearby, Miss Stevens said the birthday party, the zoo's first attempt, was a success.

"Pandas are glamorous. They are high profile," she said. "Any opportunity to enjoy an endangered species and connect to their lives at the zoo is bound to be successful."

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