By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 2, 2005
The National Zoo's giant panda cub will go on limited view starting next week, but only for a few thousand select zoo boosters who are being allowed to obtain tickets ahead of the rest of the public.
Friends of the National Zoo, the zoo's nonprofit support organization, started distributing free tickets to members at 9 a.m. yesterday through its Web site. By 1 p.m., all the tickets -- 600 a day over 11 days -- were gone, according to a FONZ spokesman.
Late yesterday, FONZ said that it would add three days to its advance-viewing dates and that tickets would be available for members on its Web site starting at 9 a.m. today.
The cub, Tai Shan, born July 9, is expected to make his official public debut in early December, though no date has been set. The zoo hopes to start issuing free timed-entry tickets this month, via its Web site, on a first-come, first-served basis.
"We're still shooting for December, barring anything major or unforeseen," Peper Long, a zoo spokeswoman, said yesterday. The FONZ membership viewing, she said, will help the cub, his mother, Mei Xiang, and zoo staff get used to having crowds parade through the Panda House, which has been closed since the cub's birth.
The zoo last month began letting small groups of employees, donors and VIPs view the cub for brief periods.
The first large group of early visitors will get to see the cub Monday, at 10-minute intervals between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Other groups of FONZ members will be admitted to the Panda House through early December. In addition, five days have been reserved in which zoo volunteers, zoo employees, other Smithsonian Institution staff and "Panda Pavers," those who contributed to help build the new panda habitat, will get an early look at the cub.
Since the cub's birth, FONZ has been promising its members a chance to get an advance look. FONZ spokesman Matt Olear said the organization's Web site has had an announcement for the past week that tickets would be made available, starting yesterday. In addition, he said, e-mail notices went out Monday night to about 30,000 "membership units" for whom FONZ had e-mail addresses.
Olear said FONZ has more than 80,000 members.
Tai Shan, the first surviving giant panda cub in the zoo's more than three decades of trying to breed the endangered species, is 16 weeks old.
On Monday, at his 10th exam, he weighed 15.5 pounds and measured more than 28 inches long. The cub, a true toddler, is intensely curious about his surroundings, according to reports from the Panda House. He likes to explore the indoor exhibit when his mother is not there to drag him back to the den.
The zoo's Web site says it cannot guarantee that all the early visitors will get to see Tai Shan. This is because the cub's mother is still not comfortable with letting him out of the den and into the public viewing area.
Olear said there will be a block of time, when Mei Xiang is normally out in the yard, that the cub will be placed in the indoor exhibit.
"But we won't block off the den, and we won't stop the mom from trying to come back in," Olear said. "If she wants to take the cub back in the den, she will be able to."
For links to webcams of the panda, the latest video and more information, go tohttp://www.washingtonpost.com.