Two giant pandas born in American zoos were headed to China by special cargo jet Thursday to become part of a breeding program in their endangered species’ native land.
Three-year-old Mei Lan of Zoo Atlanta and 4 1/2-year-old Tai Shan of the National Zoo in Washington were loaded into travel crates for their long flight to new homes in Sichuan.
Zookeepers fed Tai Shan apple and pear slices by hand through bars in his shipping crate before he left for Dulles International Airport early Thursday in a caravan escorted by U.S. Park Police. He munched calmly and looked out through clear plastic windows.
In Atlanta, Mei Lan could be seen pacing rapidly back and forth before her crate was lifted into the belly of a FedEx freighter for a flight to Washington, where she will join Tai Shan for the China trip aboard another Boeing 777 with a panda painted on the side.
It’s a day panda lovers have been dreading.
“He’s our success story,” 37-year-old Deanna Williston said of Tai Shan. During a Wednesday visit to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, she recalled tracking his growth from the size of a stick of butter to nearly 200 pounds.
She knitted a panda hat based on Tai Shan’s picture and wears it for good luck when there might be another panda pregnancy.
Pandas have a long, symbolic history in Washington. The first panda couple, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, arrived in 1972 as a gift to the American people from China after President Richard Nixon’s historic visit.
The pair lived more than 20 years at the zoo and produced five cubs - but none survived.
That’s partly why Tai Shan, the first cub to grow up in the nation’s capital, is so adored.
“All the other pandas we’ve borrowed from China, but he’s ours,” said Amanda Parson, 30, of Beltsville, Md., who visited the zoo in the snow Wednesday with Miss Williston for Tai Shan’s last day on view.
The zoo’s two remaining pandas, mother Mei Xiang and father Tian Tian, are on a 10-year, $10 million loan until December. Veterinarians hope Mei Xiang may be pregnant after a recent artificial insemination.
Tai Shan gave his mother a few sniffs Wednesday through a fenced window between their separate yards.
Friday’s panda handover comes amid tense U.S.-China relations because of a recently announced U.S. arms sale to Taiwan and a potential meeting between President Obama and the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader.
But pandas are goodwill ambassadors, said Robert A. Pastor, professor of international relations at American University. He said “warm and close relationships” can help counterbalance times of tension.
“So people-to-people or animal-to-animal exchanges are an essential dimension to the relationship,” he said.
For animal keeper Nicole Meese, Tai Shan’s departure is personal. She first held him as a baby and spent late nights calling him when he learned to climb trees but wouldn’t come down.
“Every day, he makes me smile,” said Miss Meese, who will travel to China with the pandas aboard the FedEx jet. “I’m going to miss him terribly.”