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Fans of panda Tai Shan say goodbye before he flies to China

By Michael E. Ruane
Thursday, February 4, 2010; B01

Frances Nguyen is swathed in black -- black boots, black pants, black hat and a black parka with a long black camera lens protruding from under the hood.

It is a cold morning at the National Zoo, and the only part of Nguyen that is exposed is her right index finger, with pink nail polish, which is clicking her camera shutter again and again.

Before her, Tai Shan, the famous giant panda who is about to leave the zoo, sits in the sun on a snow-covered hillside, cracking bamboo stalks with his teeth and filling the camera's lens.

Nguyen has photographed Tai Shan many times, 1,500 shots on a good day, 200 when things were slow. Weekends. Days off. Vacations. For four years, since right after he was born, she has been one of his most zealous fans -- entranced by his life, and how it illuminated hers.

She was born in Saigon amid the upheaval of the Vietnam War and was separated from her parents when she was a child. As an adult, she was drawn to something about the bear -- a kinship, perhaps, with this youngster of another species. She could not stay away. She needed to see and chronicle as many moments of his life as she could.

In turn, she says, he has altered hers: She got to watch a beautiful animal grow up. She found friends and a community at the panda house. She met her husband there. She and Foo Cheung, 40, a genome scientist and panda fanatic, were married in September. And last week, as she prepared to bid Tai Shan goodbye, she learned that she is pregnant.

So in the cold of Monday morning, with only a few days to go until his departure for China, Nguyen rose before dawn and stood for hours staring at him through her telephoto lens, clicking the shutter over and over, getting every last detail and trying to ignore the white shipping crate at the back of his enclosure.

"Tai has brought so much good karma," Nguyen, a Web designer for the federal government, said before she left for the zoo that morning. "There's a lot of things in life that are precious that you cannot see or you cannot speak of, but it is there in front of you."

"I was drawn in because of how cute [he was] and how his interaction with his mom was basic," she said. "It grew into deep love for him and other animals, and . . . it developed into friendship, and even marriage and love. I have him to thank."

Tai Shan, who was born at the zoo July 9, 2005, is set to leave Thursday, ending Washington's love affair with the only giant panda to survive beyond infancy at the zoo.

He is scheduled to leave the zoo via tractor-trailer about 9 a.m. for an 11:30 a.m. flight, via FedEx air freighter, out of Dulles International Airport.

He is being taken, according to an agreement with China, to a breeding program in the mountainous interior of the country. Giant pandas are endangered. Only a few thousand are thought to be left in the wild.

Tai Shan's parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, are also scheduled to be taken to China this year, but zoo officials are trying to negotiate an extended stay.

'Ripped away'

Wednesday, the last day for the public to see Tai Shan, was wrenching for Nguyen and other hard-core devotees -- people who have haunted the panda house for four years, filled their homes with panda artifacts and taken tens of thousands of panda pictures.

Many were inconsolable as zoo security officers ushered them out of the panda house at 4:30 p.m. "A piece of me is being ripped away," said a distraught Christie Harper of Derwood. "Tai is one of a kind. There's never going to be another bear like him."

Walking down the curving wet sidewalk, others wept and embraced as if they had lost a loved one.

And as the sun set in a murky sky, they gathered one last time by the now-vacant outdoor enclosure.

Often, they said, people ask them why they've spent so much time there.

"You don't know why," Nguyen said. "It's like a magic."

"You don't connect the dots until later on, when you stand back and you look and you say, 'There I was,' " she added. "Going there, to the zoo. By myself. I felt like no one understood me. . . . It's just been a blessing in my life."

Over several hours Monday, in her home, her car and during a chilly vigil at the zoo, she tried to explain it.

Filling an 'empty space'

Nguyen (pronounced Winn), 36, lives in a panda-bedecked townhouse in Gaithersburg and is the founder of Pandas Unlimited, an international photo-sharing Web site with 2,700 members and 80,000 images.

She said she became intrigued by Tai Shan a few months after he was born. She was unimpressed when she first saw him on the zoo's Panda Cam but was mesmerized when she visited him the first time.

Friends with her wanted to see other animals. She could not pull herself away. "I thought, 'What's wrong with me?' " Later, she felt the urge to visit again, and again. She would go by herself. She brought a tiny camera, then a bigger one. She visited whenever she could and wondered whether she was the only one who felt this way.

She said her mother worried: "You're standing out in the cold. It's not healthy for you. . . . You're not going to meet a man. How're you ever going to get married if every one of your weekends is hours at the zoo?"

Nguyen was born in 1973 in what was then South Vietnam, during the closing stages of the war. Her parents and older brother were able to flee in a boat as the North Vietnamese conquered the south, but she was too young to travel and was left behind with relatives.

They eventually made their way to France, she said, and she was reunited with her mother and brother in the United States, only to discover that her parents had split up.

She, her mother and her brother migrated to Wheaton, where Nguyen grew up.

"I've seen a lot of difficulties," she said. "My mom said that as a child I had problems. I didn't talk to many people. I was kind of a little bit mute." At one point, she couldn't walk and was in a wheelchair: "They said it was a lot of stress."

But she did well in school, earned two college degrees and found a good job.

Then, in 2005, she met the panda. She loved to watch the tiny cub interact with his huge mother.

"When I saw his mom taking care of him . . . I appreciated it so much because I was without my mom, even though my mom loved me a lot," she said. "I saw this child cuddled . . . [by] a huge bear 300 times his size, holding him, taking care of him. It [says], for a person like me, there's love out there, there's peace."

She discovered others like her and founded Pandas Unlimited in 2006. For some members, Tai Shan replaced something they had lost -- a spouse -- or something they never had. "He fills an empty space in their heart," she said.

"It's not that anything is wrong with them," she said. "They're just chosen people."

As they prepared to say goodbye Wednesday, Nguyen said she and the others often wonder: Did they choose this animal to focus their devotion on, or "did Tai choose us?"

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