Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Meet Tai Shan — the ultimate chick magnet.

The National Zoo’s new giant panda cub, who made his first appearance before the international press yesterday, has women all over the Washington area swooning over the cute and cuddly ball of fur — and more than a few guys scratching their heads.

“He’s just not that cute,” said Richard Wertheim, 32, of Arlington — drawing a fork to the leg from his panda-loving female lunch mate.

“He is too cute, say he is,” quipped Aqsa Khan, 24, of Woodbridge, Va., to Mr. Wertheim. “The panda is cute, tell me he’s cute. He’s adorable.”

Tai Shan’s power over women has not gone unnoticed by local date seekers.

“I wouldn’t go out of my way for a panda, but I’d go out of my way for a girl,” said Thomas Holland, 17, of Alexandria. “Girls love cute things. [Forget] the movies, take a girl to see the panda.”

“When I first saw it, I remember thinking it’s not nearly as cute as all the girls are like [saying],” said Mike Mannina, 23, of the District. “I wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings, so I might go along with it if my girlfriend liked it.”

During Tai Shan’s press debut, most of the female reporters oohed and ahhed as the 21-pound cub climbed rocky ledges in his enclosure, pulling himself up with his front legs and wobbling his back paws up and over, while the male reporters focused primarily on shooting pictures and scribbling notes.

It might be maternal instinct that draws the female fans to Tai Shan, said Janice McGurick of the District.

“Guy’s don’t go for the cuddly stuff,” she said. “Men just don’t really like cutesy.”

Dennis Lucas, 47, of the District said Tai Shan is interesting because the cub is exotic, but disagreed with his fiancee, Tamika James, 32, when she calls Tai Shan “adorable.”

“I think the panda is cool because of his color combination and because he’s unique,” he said. “But she likes the panda because it’s cute. It’s kind of like watching our 5-year-old son. I’m like ‘he’s cool,’ and she thinks he’s adorable.”

Tai Shan’s popularity is surprising to zoo officials, who have not done any special advertising for the cub since it was born July 9. However, fans could track Tai Shan on the online “panda cams.”

“This animal requires no publicity,” said Susan Lumpkin, a spokeswoman for Friends of the National Zoo. “It generates all of its own. I don’t think there’s any good explanation. People talk about people loving pandas because they’re so cute and cuddly looking and they’re exotic, but none of those seem adequate to explain their popularity.”

During his appearance before about 100 members of the press from more than 50 outlets, the 4-month-old cub took advantage of his time on camera by climbing rocks, gumming bamboo stalks and roaming all over the straw-covered floor of his indoor enclosure.

“He spends his days now exploring his indoor enclave,” said Lisa Stevens, the zoo’s assistant curator for pandas. “He likes to do what he wants to do. He’s behaving like a typical bear cub.”

Tai Shan also showed his playful side by nipping at the hands of a keeper who carried him into the den. Zoo officials said he has become more independent and assertive in recent weeks and will, at times, bark at keepers or his mother, Mei Xiang, when being picked up.

“If we do something he doesn’t like, he barks,” said Nicole Meese, the zoo’s giant pandas and primates keeper who works with Tai Shan. “We’ve also seen him chase keepers around.”

Tai Shan was born to 7-year-old Mei Xiang and 8-year-old Tian Tian after zoo scientists artificially inseminated Mei Xiang in March.

The cub has been considered a remarkable success story because none of the five cubs, born from 1983 to 1989, at the zoo survived more than four days.

The cub, who will be 5 months old on Dec. 9, has passed his checkups with flying colors and has received all of his vaccinations, for now. Zoo officials said he is still nursing and likely will begin eating bamboo at 6 months.

Yesterday’s viewing preceded Tai Shan’s public debut, which is scheduled to begin next week.

Last week, the zoo on its Web site distributed free tickets on a first-come, first-served basis for designated viewings, which begin Dec. 8 and end Jan. 2.

About 13,000 tickets were snatched up in a little more than two hours, and some later appeared on EBay with asking prices ranging from $199 for two to $500 for six.

Zoo officials then announced that people could use the tickets only if they can prove they reserved them themselves.

Those who got the tickets had to give their names, which were printed on the tickets. Zoo officials said that if the name on the ticket doesn’t match a person’s identification, they will be turned away.

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