Tears among the snowflakes as crowds say goodbye to panda

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010; C01

Andrea Smith yelled.

"I see him! I see him! I see him up there!"

She laughed out loud to the assembled crowd: "This is my first time! I see him!"

Momentarily, joyfully delirious and clad in her gray panda sweater, she called out again: "It's my first time! But I see him!"

Tai Shan, the National Zoo's giant panda rock star, can have that effect on people. Take Saturday. Hundreds gathered from near and far in frigid, snowy weather for the zoo's official Tai Shan farewell bash.

From as far away as Florida, North Carolina and New Jersey, the panda lovers came to huddle in parkas, ponchos and blankets for final glimpses of the black-eared wonder bear before he ships out to China on Thursday.

As snow piled on their hats, shoulders and cameras, the "pandarazzi," as they call themselves, jostled, hugged and exuded a kind of happy madness.

People wore panda masks and panda ears and had black spots painted on their noses. A little girl in a pink hat hollered that she'd love Tai Shan forever.

And Mike Salamon of Columbia Heights picked this panda moment to propose to his girlfriend, Vicki Wanielista. As flakes fell on the leaves and logs in the pandas' outdoor compound, he got down on one knee and pulled a ring from his coat pocket.

Vicki cried, and said yes. Now, they said, they would remember forever the last time they saw Tai Shan.

The weather on Saturday put a bit of crunch on the event: The zoo closed early, and the celebration was cut short by two hours. But the conditions also provided a magical backdrop as the 4-year-old panda sat amid falling snow munching leafy stalks of bamboo. "They make you happy," Smith, 52, of Hyattsville, said of the pandas. "People need to come out and just rejoice."

Tai Shan, who was born at the zoo July 9, 2005, is the only giant panda cub to survive there beyond infancy.

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.

"I have thousands of panda items," including a large fiberglass panda mailbox, she said as she stood swathed in a scarf, hat and blue poncho. "People ask me why I'm so fascinated. I don't know. . . . It just kind of clicked."

Suzanne Cabrera, 46, from West Palm Beach, Fla., extended a business trip by a day to see Tai Shan one more time.

"Huge" panda fan, she said. "The whole family. We came up when he was born. My kids have huge stuffed pandas. We have all these panda videos. I'm saying goodbye for the family."

As the weather worsened and officials announced that the zoo would close at 1 p.m., Salamon, 26, was rushing there with his girlfriend -- who was unaware of what was coming -- and a bunch of friends.

The couple, who have dated for five years, were veteran panda aficionados and by chance had been at the zoo the day Tai Shan was born.

Mike figured this would be the perfect moment to propose to Vicki, 28, a second-grade teacher.

Once they arrived, bundled against the weather, he maneuvered her to a spot near the outdoor compound and knelt. She covered her face with her gloved hands and began to cry. They embraced. In the background, their friends cheered: "Yay!"

"Oh my God, it's gorgeous," a woman said.

A male friend joked: "Pandas are dangerous."

Tai Shan, having worked his magic, was reclining behind a rock, his fur covered with falling snow.

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