NATIONAL ZOO

Tai Shan to Get 1st Birthday Bash

Tai Shan plays with his mother, Mei Xiang, last month. The cub has received 1.2 million visits since he made his public debut in December, the National Zoo estimates. Millions more have followed his adventures on the zoo's Web site.
Tai Shan plays with his mother, Mei Xiang, last month. The cub has received 1.2 million visits since he made his public debut in December, the National Zoo estimates. Millions more have followed his adventures on the zoo's Web site. (By Ann Batdorf -- National Zoo)

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By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 3, 2006

Tai Shan, the National Zoo's rare and popular giant panda cub, turns a year old Sunday, and the scientists, keepers and volunteers who helped bring him into the world are holding a big public birthday party.

The celebration, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at the animal park, will feature entertainment, children's activities and the opportunity to talk with the zoo's panda staff, scientists and veterinarians.

Panda fans who have reserved timed-entry tickets to the exhibit that day will get first preference. But zoo officials say they hope to give all visitors to the birthday bash a chance to see the cub.

Tai Shan, once tiny and pinkish, is now pushing 60 pounds and has the distinctive black and white fur and impish behavior that have made giant pandas such crowd-pleasers. Since his December debut, the zoo estimates, the cub has drawn 1.2 million visits from an adoring public -- including first lady Laura Bush and actress Nicole Kidman.

In addition, the zoo's giant panda Web site receives 2 million hits a month from people around the world who want to watch Tai Shan's antics and read frequent updates on his progress.

"It's very touching that he's made so many people so happy," said Lisa Stevens, the zoo's panda curator. "He's been very special for all of us."

Stevens, who writes the panda reports posted on the Web site, calls Tai Shan and his parents, mother Mei Xiang and father Tian Tian, instant symbols of joy, conservation and research.

The cub, in particular, has become a high-profile ambassador -- used to promote efforts to save giant pandas in the wild, where 1,600 live in the rugged mountains of south-central China, and to increase the captive population of fewer than 200 worldwide, including 11 in U.S. zoos. His birth last summer using cutting-edge artificial insemination techniques also has put the National Zoo front and center among those working to breed and protect this endangered species.

Tai Shan's arrival was all the more sweet after years of heartbreak trying to produce a cub from the zoo's previous panda couple, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. That pair, a gift from the Chinese government in 1972, produced five cubs, but none lived more than a few days.

"I'm hearing from people who saw Ling and Hsing as children and are now back with their own children to see Tai Shan," Stevens said.

Exhibiting the giant pandas costs the National Zoo $1 million a year. That money, as well as a onetime fee of $600,000 for the cub, goes to a panda conservation fund in China.

The zoo's panda family will have almost double the outdoor space when the new Fujifilm Giant Panda Habitat opens this fall. A bigger yard could come in handy: Zoo scientists hope Mei Xiang and Tian Tian will breed in the spring. They'll resort to artificial insemination again if natural mating is unsuccessful.

At some point after he turns 2, Tai Shan will be sent to China to join breeding efforts there. For now, though, he's the zoo's star attraction, and his first birthday will be marked accordingly.

Fujifilm and other corporate sponsors will line Olmstead Walk offering treats to zoogoers. The first 1,000 visitors will get cupcakes, courtesy of Whole Foods. FedEx, which transported Tai Shan's parents from China, will let children explore one of the crates they arrived in. Animal Planet will be showing its "A Panda Is Born" documentary throughout the day at the Visitor Center.

In addition, the zoo's panda keepers and other staff will chat with visitors and answer questions. There will be traditional Chinese music and dance, and panda fans can make cards for the cub.

And Tai Shan, the birthday boy?

Stevens predicts that he will be oblivious to the fuss around him, spending the day as usual, playing in the yard and napping in a tree.

But she expects him to eagerly grab his surprise gift: Keepers are giving the cub his own frozen fruitsicle for the first time.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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