By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 5, 2009; B01
The black-and-white bear sat under a chestnut oak tree, holding a golden pear in his left paw and regarding his massed admirers as a monarch might his people.
Sure, he had bad table manners: He chewed with his mouth open, dribbled crumbs down his chest and licked his paws.
But Friday, with word that his reign at the National Zoo was ending, Tai Shan, Washington's beloved giant panda adolescent, was saluted as if he were a departing young prince.
Subjects wept. They shouted their love from an overlook. They prayed that he might one day find a suitable princess in the far-off land that will be his new home.
And all this came months before he leaves.
Still, it was wrenching for the kingdom of Pandamonia when the zoo announced at a jammed morning news conference that the revered black-eared bear would be going off to China sometime over the winter. An exact departure date depends on getting an export permit and other clearances, officials said.
As the panda lounged a few feet away in an outdoor compound, acting zoo director Steven L. Montfort explained that the zoo had beseeched Chinese officials to let "Tai" stay another year. "We felt it was logical," he said, because Tai's parents will be in Washington for at least one more year. But China, which owns all giant pandas in U.S. zoos, had granted him two extensions, and the answer was no.
"We respect their decision," Montfort said, "and feel that it's within their rights obviously to exercise the fact that Tai Shan needs to go back."
Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong, who noted that his 4-year-old son is a panda fan, said: "It's not an easy thing for the Chinese side. . . . Parting is a sad thing."
Tai Shan, whose name means "peaceful mountain," was born at the zoo July 9, 2005, and has been adored by legions of zoogoers since his public debut that December.
But under the agreements that brought his mother, Mei Xiang, and father, Tian Tian, to the zoo from China, all three are Chinese property. Tai Shan was originally supposed to have been turned over to China when he turned 2.
Tai is now old enough to breed, and Chinese conservationists want him in their program to try to increase the population of endangered giant pandas. "Now it's time for him to be just a young male panda," said Lisa Stevens, the zoo's curator of pandas and primates.
Tai Shan's parents, who arrived Dec. 6, 2000, are here on a $10 million 10-year loan. That arrangement expires next December, and the zoo hopes to start negotiations on an extension in the spring, Montfort said.
Both Montfort and Wang said they did not think that China would leave Washington utterly panda-less. "I believe that the Chinese side will continue to provide cooperation with their American counterparts," Wang said.
Montfort said: "I'm very optimistic that pandas will be at the National Zoo for as far as the eye can see."
He also said that, despite recent failures, the zoo probably will soon try once again to breed Mei Xiang, in the hopes of producing another cub. "We're hopeful every year," he said.
Bereft panda lovers, though, were still sad.
"It won't be the same," said Roxanne Sykes of Arlington County, who watched the proceedings in the zoo's panda compound from a nearby overlook and yelled, "We love you, Tai Shan!" with two other women.
"I just think he's our national treasure," she said. "He's been such a gift. . . . It's hard to hear the news. We've been expecting it. . . . He's probably the most famous panda in the world. He's just a superstar."
"We were all in denial," said Elise Ney, 49, of Bethesda. "We just didn't believe it would ever happen. . . . All of us have followed him since birth."
Montfort said: "We understand this is traumatic for a lot of people. We plan to have a number of special events here at the zoo really to honor Tai Shan's contribution. . . . He's of an iconic species. He provides hope for the future of pandas."