Friday, February 2, 2007

Panda fans can put away their tear-stained tissues and stash those goodbye gifts — at least for now.

Officials at the National Zoo, home of giant panda cub Tai Shan, say they are in talks with China to extend the stay of the District’s cuddliest celebrity and one of its biggest draws — at least until after the summer tourist rush ends.

“He will be here for the summer,” zoo spokesman John Gibbons said yesterday. “Visitors to Washington can rest assured that if they come here during the summer, he will be here to see.”

Tai Shan was born July 9, 2005, 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 head back to their home country in 2010.

But because of a lengthy lead-up to the cub’s departure, which involves obtaining numerous forms and permits, Mr. Gibbons said Tai Shan will make the District his home through the summer and likely into fall.

After that, just when the black-and-white superstar will pack his bamboo and be flown overseas is anyone’s guess. There is no firm date to send Tai Shan to China, Mr. Gibbons said.

“Whether he stays longer … that is what’s being discussed between the zoo’s management and the Chinese government,” Mr. Gibbons said. “Any plans for him to stay longer are still in the negotiation phase.”

Now weighing nearly 100 pounds — ballooning from butterstick to butter churn — Tai Shan is still one of the zoo’s most popular attractions and has survived being upstaged by the birth of another panda cub at Zoo Atlanta on Sept. 6.

In December, 93,552 persons paid a visit to the National Zoo’s panda exhibit, Mr. Gibbons said, roughly 26,000 more than the number of visitors in December 2005.

The zoo opened its new Asia Trail exhibit, featuring a $53 million renovation of about 6 acres that nearly doubled the pandas’ room to roam, in October.

Yesterday, Tai Shan spent a chilly, wet morning eating early on, and then napping near his mother. Mr. Gibbons said the cub is starting to wean from Mei Xiang and is incorporating more bamboo into his diet.

“He’s becoming more of an adult bear now,” he observed.

The cub, as usual, drew visitors who braved the chilly day to catch a glimpse of him and his parents.

Rob and Julie Sample, a couple from Ottawa in the area on business, said it was their first time seeing the pandas.

“They look pretty lazy, maybe it’s the cold, I don’t know,” said Mr. Sample, as the cub and his mother took their late-morning naps. “It’s a front-and-center animal for wildlife foundations and it’s interesting to see them from that aspect.”

Debbie Schertz, of Bloomington, Ill., proudly showed off pictures taken on her camera of the cub eating bamboo. It also was her first time seeing Tai Shan in person.

When asked how long she hoped Tai Shan could stay at the zoo, Ms. Schertz’s answer echoed the feelings of most residents and visitors to the District.

“Forever,” she said.

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