Zookeeper Nicole Meese to accompany Tai Shan to China

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 30, 2010; B01

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.

"That's what I'm focusing on," she said.

In at the start

One day last week, as their days together dwindled, Meese paused in the cluttered keepers' office of the zoo's panda house and spoke about their time together.

She has worked at the zoo since 1998, and started with the pandas a month after Tai Shan's parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, arrived in 2000.

She said she well remembers the Saturday in July 2005 when Tai Shan was born. She was home in Woodbridge in bed in the wee hours of the morning. She said there had been strong evidence that Mei Xiang might be pregnant, but no one was sure.

"I was home asleep," she said. "Got the call prior to five in the morning, as I recall. A keeper here called and said that I needed to get to the zoo as soon as possible, that we had a panda cub.

"I was in disbelief," she said.

She drove to the zoo, and remembered that the keepers could hear the cub before they could see him on the camera monitor. "They make very distinctive noises, healthy cubs, squealing, and when you hear a lot of that you know a vocal cub is healthy," she said.

"He was very vigorous from Day One," Meese said. They spotted him on camera a few days later: "He looked kind of like a naked rat. Their eyes are closed. Their ears are closed. They're just kind of wiggling around squealing."

She remembers the first time she held him, a few weeks later. "I was nervous," she said, "because the world was watching Tai Shan. . . . I was nervous just picking up such a high-profile little creature. . . . Am I going to drop him? That was my biggest fear in the world."

She didn't drop him.

As time went on, she got to train him, and, while he was little, let him follow her like a puppy around the compound. "A lot of fun," she recalled. "When he got too big, that ended."

The last journey

Tai Shan is being shipped to China's Bifengxia Panda Base in the mountainous interior of the country, where he will join a breeding program. Meese said she has been to the base, which is in a big nature park. (Tai's parents are scheduled to return to China at the end of the year.)

She said she is working on two checklists for the journey: one for her, and one for her charge. She will be in one of the freight airplane's four passenger seats. Tai Shan and a panda from the Atlanta zoo, Mei Lan, 3, who is also being shipped to China, will be in transportation crates in the back. "My intention is to not spend any more time in the seat than I really have to," Meese said.

The 14 1/2 hour, 8,642-mile flight leaves Dulles International Airport at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday and arrives in Chengdu, China, late Friday afternoon, officials say. The panda base is about 2 1/2 hours away by truck.

On the ground, Tai Shan will enter the custody of the Chinese. Meese will cease to be his keeper and becomes only a guest. "Once we land, I am no longer responsible for his care," she said.

Last week, as she cleaned the compound, Tai Shan, who had been outside, came over to the chain-link fence that separated them. He gripped the fence with his paws and tried to get her attention. No longer a cub, his claws were huge, his head massive, his white fur a little grimy.

"Hi," she said. "What's up?"

He bleated in reply, sounding more like a lamb than a bear.

"Yeah, I'm not moving very fast today," she said.

Outside, the sun shone and birds chirped. Meese said he was probably angling for a snack. But she had things to do. It was getting late, and the floor was still a mess.

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