Bao Bao won’t be this cute forever. And when she’s 4 years old, she’ll be handed a one-way ticket to China. So we need to savor every moment we get with our special furball, born to Mei Xiang and Tian Tian on Aug. 23 at the National Zoo. With the reopening of the panda house to the general public Saturday, Bao Bao groupies — all 10,000-plus of them that the zoo expects to show up this weekend — can turn the Panda Cam off and start watching in person for the milestones she’ll hit in the coming months. “There’s just going to be an explosion of behaviors,” says giant panda keeper Nicole MacCorkle.
Leading up to Bao Bao’s public debut, she’s been “just really building the skills that she’s going to use,” MacCorkle says, including learning to respond to her name when called. Much like dogs, pandas “are very food-motivated,” MacCorkle says. “When she starts to orient toward us, we call her name and say ‘good girl’ and she can have a little taste of apple juice.”
Bao Bao Starts Acting Cute, Like, Really Cute
China’s wild giant pandas are accustomed to snowy weather, MacCorkle says. She hopes the forecast cooperates to give Bao Bao a taste of her motherland — but without the arctic chill of a polar vortex. Bao Bao has seen and felt snow before (zookeepers brought some inside for her to play with in a bucket), but she has yet to see it outside. Few things are cuter than an adult panda frolicking in the snow, MacCorkle says. “But seeing a cub? That is an experience that definitely all Washingtonians should make time for.”
Bao Bao’s First Tree Climb
Much like a parent would baby-proof a home, zookeepers will cub-proof Bao Bao and Mei Xiang’s outdoor enclosure before Bao Bao gets her paws on the trees. Those with branches that overhang dad Tian Tian’s yard are a no-no; others are just too high for Bao Bao to safely scale at her age — stumps are more her speed right now. Zookeepers will also secure the fence lines and cushion some of the rocky areas with hay.
Bao Bao Meets Dad
A panda family is sweet to imagine, but in reality, Tian Tian is an absentee father. (And maybe a dangerous one: “The potential exists that the cub could get killed” if she were housed in the same yard, MacCorkle says.) Unlike pandas in the wild, Bao Bao will get a chance to look at, smell and hear Tian Tian through a mesh window. Zookeepers look forward to this moment because they’ve never seen a female cub meet her father. “Who knows who’s going to vocalize first? Some lucky visitor might get to see that,” MacCorkle says.
Bao Bao’s First Grown-Up Foods
Around her six-month birthday, Bao Bao will start eating bamboo, just like Mom and Dad. She will also get her first fruitsicle, a frozen apple juice and fruit concoction. “We’ll do a little mini one,” MacCorkle says. “Mei is not very sharing when it comes to those.” One treat Bao Bao won’t taste until she’s a year old is honey, as there’s a tiny risk it could give her botulism.
Bao Bao’s First Bamboo Shoots
Visitors who really want to see the cub go nuts should visit when bamboo starts to shoot in late spring and early summer. The shoots, new growth that’s softer and more nutritious than mature bamboo, are easily a panda’s top treat pick, more coveted than honey or fruitsicles. “They just go crazy for them,” MacCorkle says.
Bao Bao’s First Birthday
“It will be a big event that the public will be involved in,” MacCorkle promises. For Bao Bao’s birthday dinner, “I’m sure our Department of Nutrition will construct something fabulous and really extravagant-looking,” MacCorkle says. If Tai Shan’s several-layer ice “cakes” are the benchmark, then Bao Bao’s got one fancy fruitsicle to look forward to.
WHEN TO VISIT BAO BAO
Giant panda keeper Nicole MacCorkle suggests visitors arrive early — and not just to get in line before the crowds. Bao Bao is her most active in the morning. To accommodate those who want to see the cub in action, the zoo’s panda house is extending its hours this Saturday through Monday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. After that, the general public will have to wait until 10 a.m. to catch a glimpse, which could be tough. Bao Bao is currently in the habit of taking mid-morning naps. “I know a lot of people are not really wanting to get up super early to get here, but, really, it pays off,” MacCorkle says.
GET A PRIVATE SHOWING
The National Zoo launched its Instagram account with a Bao Bao bang on Wednesday when it posted a picture of the cub from @SmithsonianZoo. The zoo also announced its first “InstaMeet” or “#ZooMeet” contest, where 30 lucky winners will have 30 minutes to view and take photos of Bao Bao before the panda house opens for regular hours on Feb. 1, a Saturday. The zoo’s panda team will be on hand to answer questions. To enter, participants should follow @SmithsonianZoo on Instagram and register for the contest at svy.mk/1dtAaxl.
To learn more about pandas, and why you don’t want to cuddle one, click here.
To hear a red panda vs. giant panda throwdown in song, click here. (You’re welcome.)
Note: This story is an updated version of a story that was originally published on Sunday, Jan. 12.