NATIONAL ZOO

2 More Years of Oohs and Aahs

Maeve Smith, 4, and her brother, Brennan, 2, peer through a glass wall yesterday at Tai Shan, who has drawn 2.25 million visitors since his public debut Dec. 8, 2005.
Maeve Smith, 4, and her brother, Brennan, 2, peer through a glass wall yesterday at Tai Shan, who has drawn 2.25 million visitors since his public debut Dec. 8, 2005. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Inside the zoo enclosure, the plump little creature with the black ears, black eyes and awful posture slouched against the glass, shredding bamboo stalks with his teeth.

Outside the glass, officials from two nations, the mayor of the District of Columbia and a gaggle of other admirers were celebrating: Washington's most important citizen, as Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) called him, would be allowed to stay and munch and slouch, and entertain, for two more years.

"What a wonderful day it is!" the National Zoo's director, John Berry, said yesterday morning after Chinese Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong formally announced in a ceremony that Tai Shan, the giant panda cub, could stay on at the zoo until 2009. "What a great day to celebrate!"

In the end, zoo officials said yesterday, negotiations with China to extend the stay were smooth and amicable. No money was involved in the deal, and Berry said the agreement was mostly the result of Chinese largesse.

"It is the wonderful generosity of the People's Republic of China that has extended his stay for us," Berry said. "And we are so grateful. It is a wonderful day for the zoo and for Washington, D.C."

Tai Shan, born at the zoo July 9, 2005, is China's property, as are his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who are at the zoo under a 10-year, $10 million loan agreement. They arrived in December 2000 and are the focus of a research, conservation and breeding program. The giant panda is native to China.

Under the loan agreement, any cub born to Mei Xiang at the zoo would be sent to a preserve in China for breeding purposes sometime after the cub's second birthday. The zoo is paying China $600,000 for the cub's initial two-year stay, a zoo official said.

The zoo, hoping that the cub would not be needed for breeding for a few more years, had been negotiating with China for several months to let Tai Shan stay longer. The affable Berry paid a visit to China in December "to discuss future collaborations," he said in a recent zoo newsletter.

Pandas are endangered. There are only about 1,600 in the wild and slightly more than 200 in captivity.

Tai Shan has drawn an estimated 2.25 million visitors since his public debut Dec. 8, 2005, zoo officials said, and tens of millions more have viewed him on the zoo's panda cam. He has been on the cover of magazines, the subject of a documentary and the inspiration for various zoo merchandise.

As the officials of China, the city and the zoo hailed the extension yesterday, Berry noted that China had also allowed the zoo, for the first time, to transport semen from Gao Gao, a giant panda in the San Diego Zoo, for an artificial insemination procedure on Tai Shan's mother this month.

Berry said U.S. and Chinese scientists are trying to broaden the giant panda gene pool by mating pandas from different zoos.


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