- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 9, 2006

The first birthday party for the District’s most popular baby began shortly after 10 a.m. yesterday when giant panda cub Tai Shan entered his outdoor habitat and cautiously poked and pawed at his favorite gifts: a plastic wading pool and a giant fruitsicle.

“It’s a phenomenal day,” said John Berry, the zoo’s director. “It’s such a day of celebration as we reach the one-year mark with a healthy bear that’s off the charts.”

The thousands of visitors, including many who waited for more than an hour in anticipation, oohed and ahhed as Tai Shan began to lick the frozen, orange-and-pink concoction made of apples, beets, carrots, pears, apple juice and bamboo leaves suspended in ice.

The cub then stood on his hind legs and reached the large No. 1 topping the treat, prompting applause and a chorus of “Happy Birthday” from some of the adoring onlookers.

He and mother Mei Xiang then happily munched away at the ice.

“Nobody performs like this bear,” Mr. Berry said. “He seems to know when it’s his moment in history and he rises to the occasion.”

Tai Shan — who at birth was pink, hairless and the size of a stick of butter — was born through the artificial insemination of his mother in March 2005 after numerous breeding failures at the zoo during past decades.

The rambunctious cub now weighs 56 pounds and has become the zoo’s most popular attraction by far, increasing attendance by more than 500,000 since his debut and accounting for 23 percent of the zoo’s merchandise sales this year.

The zoo’s giant panda Web page (nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/GiantPandas) has logged more than 22 million visits from around the world since the birth of Tai Shan, affectionately known as “Butterstick” when he was a newborn.

He “definitely brings a lot of people together,” said Kelly Smallwood, 33, of Centreville, who stood in line with her family for about an hour to see Tai Shan. “It’s kids, adults — it doesn’t matter who you are.”

The four-hour party also included talks from panda keepers and scientists and traditional Chinese dancers and music.

For some in the crowd — many of whom donned green panda party hats and carried stuffed pandas handed out by zoo sponsors — the celebration was the first time they had a chance to see Tai Shan up close.

“I think he’s really cute,” said Lizzy Krause, 11, standing in line outside the panda house. “In school, we learned about him a little bit because we had to do a report.”

Her mother, Nancy Surig, 48, of Bethesda, said Lizzy “tried to wake me up at 5 a.m.” to come see the cub.

Tai Shan’s first birthday also held special significance for zoo staffers, who began caring for him even before his arrival.

“He’s an ambassador for this nation and for this zoo — and he’s healthy,” said JoGayle Howard, the reproductive scientist who artificially inseminated Mei Xiang. “That says a lot for our medicine and science behind raising this cub.”

Lisa Stevens, the zoo’s assistant curator for pandas, said the cub also has symbolized the zoo’s tireless efforts to save the endangered panda species.

As part of the multimillion-dollar loan agreement with the Chinese government for Mei Xiang and partner Tian Tian that helps pay for panda conservation in that country, Tai Shan is slated to go to China when he is 2. But officials hope the transfer can be postponed until the cub reaches breeding age.

“It’s just been a happy year,” Miss Stevens said. “Every day is a joy working around him.”

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