Negotiators in Panda Diplomacy Weigh Future of Tai Shan at National Zoo

The National Zoo reacts to its female giant panda's, Mei Xiang, false pregnancy for the third year in a row. Video by Anna Uhls/The Washington Post
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 21, 2009

He has grown up before our eyes.

He has put on weight -- at 191 pounds, he's no longer a cub.

Soon, he'll be interested in girls.

And sooner still, he could be leaving home.

We're talking about Tai Shan, the National Zoo's beloved giant panda "teenager." That's right, our black-eyed boy bear is not really ours at all. And later this year, he could be heading to China.

As the Washington area summer tourist season approaches and the zoo's storybook panda family remains as popular as ever, many zoogoers forget or don't even know that the zoo's three pandas are Chinese property, on loan for a limited time. Giant pandas are native to China.

"Yes, Tai Shan is going back," zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said yesterday. "But I can't tell you when or how."

She said that the dialogue between zoo officials and the Chinese is in the early stages. It will be complicated by import and export regulations, the devastation wrought by last year's earthquake to China's Wolong panda reserve and the fact that the zoo's adult pandas are scheduled to go back to China next year.

The adult bears, Mei Xiang, 10, the female -- who the zoo announced yesterday was not pregnant -- and Tian Tian, 11, the male, are at the zoo under a 10-year, $10 million loan. They arrived from China in December 2000 as part of a research, conservation and breeding program. Zoo officials had been monitoring Mei Xiang for signs of pregnancy since she was artificially inseminated in January.

Tai Shan, the pair's lone offspring, was born at the National Zoo on July 9, 2005. Under the agreement that brought his parents to the United States, he was to be returned to China when he turned 2. The zoo paid China $600,000 for his original stay.

But with his public debut Dec. 8, 2005, the cub became a megastar, drawing millions of visitors to the zoo in Northwest Washington and tens of millions of fans to the "panda cams" on the zoo's Web site.

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has called Tai Shan Washington's most important citizen. The bear has been on the cover of magazines, the subject of a documentary, the model for zoo merchandise and personal tattoos, and the inspiration for a fan club, Pandas Unlimited.

"We love him like our own child," said Frances Nguyen, founder of the club. She described Tai Shan as a kind of cosmic "shared" baby, beloved by thousands of devotees across the Internet. "We watched him grow up," she said.

The two years passed, and in April 2007, the zoo announced that it had reached a new agreement with China.

During a press briefing attended by Fenty and China's ambassador to the United States, the zoo said that Tai Shan would be allowed to stay in Washington for free for two more years. "What a wonderful day it is!" said a jubilant John Berry, then the zoo's director.

That time is running out, and the prospect of the zoo without Tai Shan looms larger. "I think [there] would be a big riot if he left," Nguyen said. "We would be needing counselors."

Yesterday, as tourists gathered at the zoo's giant panda habitat, Linda Helm, who was on vacation from Scotch Plains, N.J., to visit the pandas, called Tai Shan "a miracle," adding, "My soul will hurt when he's gone."

Three other zoos in the United States have giant pandas, in San Diego, Atlanta and Memphis.

The San Diego Zoo has sent two of its cubs to China, spokeswoman Christina Simmons said. Hua Mei, a female born in 1999, left in 2004. And Mei Sheng, a male who was born 2003, was sent in 2007.

San Diego has four giant pandas -- two adults, and two youngsters.

There are some indications that Tai Shan might be allowed to stay in Washington.

Last year, the San Diego Zoo negotiated a four-year extension on the 12-year loan of its two adult pandas.

In addition, the earthquake resulted in an extension for another of the zoo's bears. A young female panda that was supposed to go to China last year was allowed to stay. "They don't really have a place for her right now," Simmons said.

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