- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2014

On a Friday afternoon last year, animal keepers and thousands of people online watched with a mix of anticipation and excitement as a hairless, helpless giant panda cub was born at the National Zoo.

A year later, the newborn that was small enough to fit on a butter dish, has grown to 40 pounds and is so independent that she occasionally delays the afternoon plans — and interviews — of her keepers.

Bao Bao will turn 1 year old Saturday, and the zoo is inviting her legions of fans to help celebrate the milestone.

Birthday festivities, scheduled from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., will include panda talks from keepers and a frozen cake for the cub. Human celebrants can try a cold noodle dish from China’s Sichuan province, a nod to the location of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong.

“There’s nothing like a panda cub to bring people to the zoo,” said National Zoo animal keeper Nicole MacCorkle.

Although the zoo doesn’t keep specific numbers for the crowds that line up at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat, officials said overall visitation is up 30 percent this year.

Bao Bao made her public debut in January, although just about every moment of her life, including her birth, has been viewed through the zoo’s two online cameras for its giant pandas.

“It’s like reality TV,” Ms. MacCorkle said. “Everybody knows what we do; they feel more connected.”

That connection has helped Bao Bao endear herself to people around the world.

Her name, which means “precious” or “treasure,” was chosen through a monthlong online poll that collected more than 123,000 votes. Her naming ceremony in December drew local dignitaries and video messages from the first ladies of the U.S. and China.

When the panda cameras were turned off during the partial federal government shutdown in October, the online community was in an uproar.

This month, Bao Bao was dubbed the most iconic acquisition in the Smithsonian Institution system, beating out the Star-Spangled Banner, the Space Shuttle Discovery and even a portrait of George Washington.

Bao Bao, zoo officials said, is one of 42 surviving giant panda cubs born last year and the second surviving cub in nearly a decade for the National Zoo.

Her brother, Tai Shan, was born in 2005.

Their mother, Mei Xiang, and father, Tian Tian, arrived in Washington in December 2000 as part of a $10 million exchange agreement with the Chinese government that ends in December 2015.

The two replaced the zoo’s first pair of pandas, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, who produced five cubs that did not survive.

Tai Shan, who became wildly popular with zoo visitors, was supposed to be sent to China two years after he was born but got an extension to stay in Washington until February 2010.

But the popularity of the siblings is about where the similarities end, Ms. MaCorkle said.

With Tai Shan, keepers were “very hands-off,” she said. Only some supervisory contact was allowed in the den area.

When keepers did interact with Tai Shan, he was “always interested in approaching us,” the animal keeper said.

“We were a novelty to Tai,” Ms. MacCorkle said. “Bao Bao, we’ve always been a part of it. We’re not anything special.”

The more hands-on approach stems in part from the 2012 death of a week-old cub, which had underdeveloped lungs and liver damage. Two days after Bao Bao’s birth, she was weighed and measured by doctors and checked to ensure she was breathing properly.

Any anxiety over the survival of Bao Bao seems to have dissipated as the cub grows and develops.

Ms. MacCorkle said Bao Bao began to show an interest in bamboo at about four months, a good two months before the average for cubs, although she still gets most of her nutrition from her mother’s milk.

The young panda spends much of her time outdoors perched in trees and is participating in training activities.

“They do spend a lot of time in trees,” Ms. MacCorkle said. “She’s doing what a panda cub her age is supposed to do.”

If You Go

WHAT:Bao Bao’s First Birthday

WHERE: Smithsonian National Zoo, 3001 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Animal keeper talks at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Frozen cake for Bao Bao will be delivered at 11:30 a.m.

COST: Free

SHARE: Use #BaoBaoBday on Twitter to share pictures and birthday wishes.

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