By Michael E. Ruane and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010; B01
A zebra brayed farewell. A wolf howled, and mourning doves cooed. But from the solemn procession of humans that bore the National Zoo's giant panda Tai Shan to the truck that would take him to China on Thursday, there was scarcely a sound.
The panda's main keeper, Nicole Meese, said "It's okay, it's okay" to the bear as she walked beside the forklift carrying Tai Shan in his transportation crate from the panda house where he was born to the waiting tractor-trailer.
Two workers with orange flags led the way as the 4-year-old bear was carried on the first leg of his 8,642-mile journey. There was a pause when the crate was placed on a loading pallet and keepers knelt to feed him one last time -- each poking an apple or pear slice through the bars. Then he was off.
Amid a final day of tearful goodbyes, the youngest of the zoo's three giant pandas departed for China in an operation that zoo officials said went like clockwork. "Smooth," said Don Moore, associate director of animal care. "Very smooth."
The bear left the zoo shortly after 9 a.m., escorted by two carloads of black-clad U.S. Park Police SWAT officers. The truck, emblazoned with big panda logos, encountered well-wishers along the way, and motorists pulled over to wave and take pictures, zoo officials said.
The panda took off from Dulles International Airport on a gleaming white FedEx air freighter shortly before 12:30 p.m. The plane, also carrying Mei Lan, 3, a female giant panda from Zoo Atlanta, was scheduled to arrive, after a 14 1/2 -hour nonstop trip, about 4 p.m. Friday in Chengdu, China -- 3 a.m. Friday in Washington.
The departure came exactly two months after the zoo announced that Tai Shan, beloved by legions of panda fans, would be leaving to join a breeding program in China.
China owns all giant pandas in U.S. zoos and requires that cubs born here be sent "home" about the time they reach breeding age. Giant pandas are native to China, where only about 1,600 survive.
Tai Shan's exit from Washington was carefully choreographed and fully rehearsed, zoo officials said. Last week, the zoo conducted a complete dry run, using an empty transport container, from the panda house to the airport, Moore said.
"We've been preparing for this in a very, very detailed way," he said as the operation unfolded. "We had the forklift driver, Joe Taylor, practice four different times so that it was nice and smooth, no jerkiness."
"I'm sad that he's leaving," Moore said, "but we feel good that he's going over there to save his species. "
Tai Shan was born at the zoo July 9, 2005. He is the only giant panda born there to survive beyond infancy. His parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, were sent to the zoo by China in 2000 on a 10-year lease that expires in December. The zoo is hoping for an extension.
Tai's departure ends an unlikely 4 1/2 -year love fest between the hardboiled nation's capital and an oddball bear with black ears, a mesmerizing gaze and an appetite for pears.
Born so small and nearly hairless he was nicknamed Butterstick, he came to fascinate millions of people who saw him in person or via the zoo's pandacams. He spawned a fan club, panda merchandise, bumper stickers, postage stamps, videos, documentaries, even license plates.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) once called him Washington's most important citizen, and city officials said at the airport that he will always be a Washingtonian.
Thursday, the day one zoo official said he hoped would never come, began with keepers loading several armloads of wet bamboo for Tai to eat into an aluminum shipping container.
Tai Shan was "boxed" about 8:20 a.m., when he was enclosed in his steel and see-through plastic crate with various panda munchies. Moore emerged into the huge group of reporters lining the pathway from the panda house and gave a thumbs-up: "He's rolling now."
In minutes, the crate appeared, carried by a small forklift and accompanied by a large group of zoo staff members. Tai Shan could barely be seen through the clear plastic. Moore said later that the panda "was very calm."
After the pause for the keepers' farewell, the crate was lashed to the pallet, and a bigger forklift eased it into the truck.
The truck's rear door was closed at 8:58 a.m. FedEx driver Dennis Halsey propped a stuffed panda on his dashboard. And the seven-vehicle motorcade left the zoo a little after 9 a.m.
No longer a cuddly cub, Tai Shan weighs 184 pounds and has long, sharp claws. He was accompanied on his journey to China by Meese, his longtime keeper, and zoo veterinarian Nancy Boedeker.
Once in Chengdu, Tai Shan was to be taken by truck to the Bifengxia Panda Base, just outside the city of Ya'an, which will be his new home. Mei Lan will be taken to a different panda preserve, officials said.
After the panda left, Moore said the morning was probably toughest for the keepers, who had cared for him since he was born. "It's hard for them," he said. "It's their kid."
As the zoo prepared to open for the day, Moore switched on his walkie-talkie and said:
"Don to the animal care staff: