National Zoo panda Tai Shan to fly to China on custom FedEx plane

A week before Tai Shan leaves for China, The Washington Post's Anna Uhls joins the keepers at the National Zoo to experience what it is like to live just one day in the life of D.C.'s beloved panda.
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010

Talk about service -- a huge new airplane with your own logo on the side, only eight people on board, including your doctor, a member of the opposite sex right beside you and more than 50 pounds of your favorite food available "on demand."

Okay, you do have to stay in a transportation crate the whole 14 1/2 -hour flight. But there are worse ways for a giant panda to get to China. And officials at the National Zoo indicated Thursday that if their panda boy must go, he's going first class.

One week before the scheduled departure of Tai Shan for a new home in the mountains of central China, officials with the zoo and FedEx took time to describe exactly how he will get there.

Tai Shan will fly Feb. 4 nonstop from Dulles International Airport aboard a giant FedEx 777F air freighter. The plane will be mostly empty, reserved especially for him and one other panda, and will have big black and white panda logos painted on its fuselage.

"There will be no mistake about the precious cargo," said John G. Dunavant, a FedEx vice president at the zoo Thursday.

Tai Shan, 4, is the only giant panda born at the zoo to survive beyond infancy, and his departure is breaking the hearts of panda fans across the Washington region. A farewell party is planned at the zoo Saturday, weather permitting, and many private goodbyes will take place in the week before he goes.

His 8,642-mile airplane journey will take him out over the Atlantic Ocean, across northern Europe and Russia, and on to Chengdu, China, near his new home, said Ed Coleman, a spokesmen for FedEx, which is donating the flight and other logistical services.

A lot of planning

The trip has been carefully planned and partly rehearsed, zoo officials said.

Tai Shan will be accompanied by longtime keeper Nicole Meese and zoo veterinarian Nancy Boedeker. He will be kept in a special transportation crate, built by FedEx of steel bars and clear plastic, that is about eight feet long, four feet wide and five feet high.

No longer a cuddly cub, Tai Shan is a rangy 184-pound cruiserweight with claws that look like a lion's teeth.

He is also highly motivated by food, and the zoo is sending along 50 pounds of bamboo and apples, cooked sweet potatoes and -- his favorite -- pears for the trip.

Zoo officials said he will be coaxed into the travel crate early in the morning, loaded onto a truck and driven about 9 to the airport with a police escort. There, he will meet up with Mei Lan, 3, female giant panda from the Atlanta zoo who is also being sent to China on the airplane.

The aircraft -- capable of holding 300 people when configured for human passengers -- will be mostly empty, with the pandas and people occupying only the front quarter of the aircraft. The plane cruises at 39,000 feet and 630 mph.

The pandas will be in a heated, pressurized cargo compartment behind the passengers, and the keepers and veterinarians will have easy access to the animals.

Officials said the long trip requires four pilots on board, working in two-person shifts. In addition to the National Zoo staff, a veterinarian from the Atlanta zoo and a FedEx load master will be along.

The arrival

Arrival is set for the afternoon of Feb. 5. Once in Chengdu, Tai Shan will be taken by truck on a 2 1/2 -hour drive to the Bifengxia Panda Base, just outside the city of Ya'an, which will be his new home. Mei Lan will be taken to different panda preserve, officials said.

Once in Bifengxia, Tai Shan will go into quarantine for 30 days, as experts check for any illness or behavior problems. Meese and Boedeker will stay on until Feb. 8.

Although Tai Shan was born at the National Zoo, he is the property of China by the terms of the agreement that brought his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, here 10 years ago.

Giant pandas are native to China and are endangered. Tai Shan is being sent to join a breeding program to help increase the giant panda population.

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