Panda cub Bao Bao makes her public debut at National Zoo

Giant panda cub Bao Bao was roused from slumber and carried before an adoring public Saturday, and within minutes was curled into a ball in the corner, fast sleep.

No matter to the delighted crowds who started arriving before dawn to spend a too-brief 10 or 15 minutes inside the giant panda house at the Smithsonian National Zoo. The visitors, admitted a few dozen at a time, were atingle with oohs and ahs even when Bao Bao wasn’t doing much beyond breathing.

“It’s better than the royals having a baby,” exclaimed Zach Clark, 28, a District resident, as he and visiting friends exited the panda house after seeing Washington’s newest celebrity. Gushing over a panda cub is part and parcel of being a Washingtonian, he added. “If you live in D.C., one thing everyone can agree on is that the pandas are super exciting.”

Though members of Friends of the National Zoo have been given preview peeks, Saturday offered the public at large its first chance to see the 18-and-a-half-pound panda in person, instead of via the zoo’s Panda Cam. The zoo has extended hours through Monday to accommodate the 10,000 panda patrons expected to pass through the giant panda house over the three-day weekend.

About 30 to 50 people are admitted at a time to watch Bao Bao from behind a glass wall. At times on Saturday, the cub’s mother, Mei Xiang, wandered in, too, usually to munch on bamboo or take a nap. Mei Xiang evoked a lot of affectionate cooing, as well, simply by stretching while she dozed beside her cub.

The baby panda, Bao Bao, made her public debut at the Washington National Zoo. (Reuters)

Panda cubs in particular sleep a lot, typically 20 hours a day. Vvisitors are told not to expect to see much action.

“Come now, and get a first glimpse of the cuteness,” said Nicole MacCorkle, one of the panda keepers. “But she’ll be getting more active later on.”

Though MacCorkle is quick to add that all infant animals, even reptiles, have something endearing about them, there’s something special about a panda cub.

“Their round faces and big eyes are like the features of humans,” she said, noting that some of the children whose parents brought them to see Bao Bao were literally quivering with excitement.

Many of the adults in the crowd felt the kinship.

Kevin Wright, a District resident, said that when he sees a panda hold a stalk of bamboo, it reminds him of himself with a carrot stick.

“They’re such majestic creatures,” he said. “They’re wild animals, but their gentleness appeals to all of us.”

The panda cub at the National Zoo is warm despite the cold weather in the District. (Mike Ruane and Jacques Ledbetter/The Washington Post)

Lisa Washam, who drove 500 miles over nine hours from Lima, Ohio, to be present for the panda’s debut, teared up looking at the photos she had taken in her two minutes at the window watching Bao Bao.

“She’s so beautiful,” she said, gazing at a shot of Bao Bao staring out while wrapped in her keeper’s arms. “I feel she’s looking at me.”

Washam became intrigued by pandas a year or so ago when she was preparing her doctoral dissertation. A friend noticed she looked stressed, and suggested watching panda cams as a relaxing diversion. Washam soon became hooked, and has since traveled to all four zoos in the United States that have pandas as well as one in Canada.

“It’s very peaceful,” said Washam, who also has shown the National Zoo’s panda cam to the children with whom she works while earning a Ph.D in education.

“We call her princess,” she said of Bao Bao.

Though adults made up the bulk of the early crowd, several were accompanied by their children. Volunteers urged people pressed at the window to make room so the youngsters could get close enough to see, but some parents simply hoisted their children up for a look.

Everett Chamberlain, 2, pointed to the panda from his perch on the shoulders of his father, Joshua.

“He loves all animals,” said Everett’s mother, Sarah. “He got up at 5:30, and he’s been saying ‘baby panda’ all morning.”

Olive Schuettpelz, also 2, who lives across the street from the zoo with her parents, Eric and Jan, was bubbling over as she paraded down the sidewalk outside the panda house chanting, “Bao Bao, Bao Bao.”

“Bao Bao was playing with a pink ball,” she said.

The female panda cub was born Aug. 23 and is the first at the National Zoo since 2005 to survive more than a few days after birth. Zoo officials say she already has exhibited the first signs of recognizing her name.

Bao Bao was a familiar commodity to many of the early risers. Several said they had been monitoring her progress on the Panda Cam, and many wore black and white knitted panda hats they had purchased during previous visits to see Bao Bao’s parents. Concession stands at the zoo were capitalizing on the intense interest, selling a vast array of panda-themed items including coasters, bibs, headbands, flashlights, iPad cases, black and white popcorn and even notepads of paper made from bamboo-rich “panda poo.”

In the dark, wintry chill before daybreak, a sense of cameraderie prevailed as several dozen people in line cheered when someone shouted, “Are you ready for Bao Bao?”

Paul and Marcia Liegey of Rockville claimed spots at the front after arriving at the zoo at 5:55 a.m. — without, they noted, their 19-year-old son who refused to get out of a warm bed to join them.

“We’re hardcore, or crazy,” said Marcia Liegey a tad sheepishly, holding her husband’s panda cap. “She is just so cute. At a time when Congress is arguing, it’s good to find something sweet and innocent.”

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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