Zookeeper Nicole Meese to accompany Tai Shan to China

National Zoo keepers use the vaginal cytology slide to monitor female panda Mei Xiang's cycle in attempt to get clues on her possible pregnancy.
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 30, 2010

It is early afternoon at the National Zoo, and the indoor giant panda compound is almost deserted. Most visitors hurry through, taking no notice of the diminutive woman in the gray sweat shirt with the shovel and broom, cleaning the floor behind the viewing glass.

Her name is Nicole Meese. She is wearing blue work gloves and has a walkie-talkie and a big set of keys clipped to her belt. She works methodically -- shovel in one hand, broom in the other -- sweeping up shredded bamboo and other panda detritus.

It is a messy job but a work of love, she says, and next week, after 4 1/2 years, a big part of it comes to an end. Tai Shan, the zoo's "teenage" giant panda, is leaving Thursday for a new home in China.

Of the millions of people who have visited him since his birth in 2005, or who have seen him on the zoo's pandacam, or in photographs, or on film, Meese may know him best.

She is Tai Shan's principal keeper. She was present the morning he was born, held him a few weeks later, trained him, played with him, fed him and cleaned up after him. She has watched him grow from a tiny, nearly hairless newborn into the lanky, precocious bear to whom she now must say goodbye.

She's been present for all four birthdays, for his first time outdoors -- "really neat to watch," she said -- and for his first time eating bamboo.

He knows her voice, she said, and her face, and responds to the hand signals she devised to help school him. She talks to him, calls him "cutie," and he bleats in reply. "Every day he makes me smile," she said.

Meese, 35, is the keeper selected to go with him on the long flight to China -- to keep him company, she said, and "to keep him calm."

"So he'll have a familiar face, a reassuring voice," she said.

She will stay on in China for several days and then say farewell.

"It's going to be very hard," she said. "To be honest, I don't try to think about it . . . It'll be sad. It'll be a loss to not have him in the building."

But the move is an opportunity for Tai Shan that he doesn't have at the zoo, she said. He will be paired for breeding, perhaps adding to the population of one of the world's most beloved and endangered animals.

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