- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Breathe out and relax, panda fans — it’s not quite time for a Butterstick goodbye.

Officials with the National Zoo and the Chinese Embassy yesterday announced that giant panda cub Tai Shan will stay at the zoo at least into 2009, a lengthy loan extension that left even the city’s new mayor praising the merits of the District’s beloved bear.

“He was born here in the District, and we’ve watched Tai Shan grow into a playful panda cub,” said Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who declared yesterday “Panda Day” in celebration of the cub’s extended stay. “I’m delighted that Tai Shan will remain here in the city for another two years.”

Tai Shan was born July 9, 2005, at 3:41 a.m. to mother Mei Xiang and father Tian Tian after zoo scientists resorted to artificial insemination.

Under the terms of an agreement between the zoo and Chinese officials, the cub originally was slated to be sent to China at age 2. His parents are scheduled to return to their home country in 2010.

Zoo officials announced earlier this year that the cub would stay at least through the summer and likely into fall.

But at a press conference yesterday, Chinese Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong gave zoo officials a giant green passport to show that the cub can stay an additional two years past his second birthday.

“Tai Shan will continue to bring more happiness and delight to the American people, especially the Washingtonians, who care for him and have given him so much love,” Mr. Zhou said.

Zoo spokesman John Gibbons said the decision stemmed from China’s success in breeding panda cubs over the years and the fact that Tai Shan isn’t sexually mature and able to participate in a breeding program.

“Their need to have him in China isn’t urgent at this moment,” Mr. Gibbons said.

The extended stay also comes at no extra cost to the zoo, officials said. Under the current loan agreement, the zoo pays China roughly $1 million a year for its pandas. In addition, China charges the zoo a one-time fee of about $600,000 each time a panda cub is born.

“This is great news,” National Zoo Director John Berry said. “Not only will this give us the opportunity to continue charting his growth and development, but it also gives the public two more years to come visit him here at the National Zoo.”

Tai Shan quickly became the zoo’s biggest attraction and the area’s favorite celebrity after his birth.

Since he made his public debut in December 2005, about 2.25 million people have flocked to the zoo to see the cub. Another 1 million watch Tai Shan on the zoo’s Web site each month.

The zoo is hoping to replicate the pandemonium caused by the baby panda. Officials earlier this month artificially inseminated Mei Xiang again, this time with semen from a panda at the San Diego Zoo.

Mr. Gibbons said workers are watching Mei Xiang closely, but no signs of pregnancy have appeared.

“We are monitoring; she’s getting ultrasounds once a week,” Mr. Gibbons said. “But we don’t know anything yet.”

Tai Shan, who was the size of a stick of butter when he was born, weighs 125 pounds and made an appearance for his devoted onlookers yesterday. He gnawed on his favorite frozen treat, a combination of fruit and ice called a “fruitsicle.”

Susan Roswell, a Baltimore resident who carries pictures of Tai Shan in her purse, said she was dreading the day the cub would have to leave the zoo.

“I’m ecstatic,” she said. “But I would be even happier in two years if we heard he was staying permanently.”

n This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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