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Tears among the snowflakes as crowds say goodbye to panda

While cut short because of the snowy weather conditions, the National Zoo's farewell celebration for panda Tai Shan still included some committed visitors, time for the beloved panda to play outside, and even a surprise proposal. Tai Shan leaves Washington, D.C., for China early Thursday morning.

He has been a superstar since birth, with millions of fans, merchandise and even a commemorative postage stamp. No longer a cub, he weighs more than 18o pounds and has the long, curved claws of an adult bear.

But he has always been the property of China, according to the agreement that brought his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, to the zoo on a 10-year-lease in 2000. Tai was supposed to go to China when he turned 2, but he was granted two extensions.

In December, the zoo announced that his time was up and he was going to be placed in a Chinese breeding program designed to increase the numbers of the endangered giant panda species.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian will remain here for now. Although the parents' stay technically ends in December, zoo officials said they have implored the Chinese not to leave Washington panda-less.

Tai Shan is set to depart the zoo on Thursday morning, compliments of FedEx, via a special "Panda Express" aircraft. His final destination is the Bifengxia Panda Base, outside Ya'an, in the mountains of south-central China.

Saturday, though, was not a day to dwell on departure.

"I'm very sad," said Joyce Barrier, 43, a nurse from Hackettstown, N.J., who drove to Washington on Friday for Saturday's celebration. "But I'm also really proud of the panda that he is, that he's become. . . . There's something magical about him. I've seen a lot of pandas. . . . And there is something different about him.

"I don't even know how to put it into words," she said as she held a panda-motif purse she made. "Even when you're sad and you're around him . . . he's so much fun to watch that you don't stay sad long."

As the snow fell, Tai Shan ambled around the compound to the oohs and aahs of bystanders. At one point, his keepers brought out a triple-decker ice cake with layers of bamboo leaves. He knocked it over, to the crowd's delight.

As the panda wandered about, Marland Thurston, 67, of Alexandria, a budget official with the Defense Department, tried to get his wife, Patty, 64, lined up for a photograph.

"They are so lovable, and huggable creatures," she said. "We need something that brings a smile and joy, and they do that. . . . It's nice to have something that makes you happy during the day."

Barbara Kelley, 71, flew from Concord, N.C., to say farewell. She hadn't seen Tai Shan since just after he was born. "I only got to see the tip of his nose, and I haven't been back since," she said. A true panda lover, she said she has seen most of the pandas in American zoos and has traveled to China to see them there.

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