For Tai Shan, voyage to China is a trip to obscurity and sex

Tai Shan, the adolescent giant panda who has been a beloved symbol of Washington, D.C. for the past four years, left town Thursday morning for China.
SOURCE: | The Washington Post - February 5, 2010
Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010; 8:50 AM

CHENGDU, CHINA -- Tai Shan landed in ancestral homeland at 4:26 p.m. local time (3:26 a.m. EST), displaying the same nonchalance he showed as he left his old home in Washington. As throngs of Chinese reporters and corporate sponsors mobbed him, he calmly stared through his bamboo-filled glass cage and did what he always does: He ate.

In fact, Tai Shan was so busy chewing that he barely slept during the 15.5-hour flight, officials said.

He munched his way through forty pounds of bamboo, three pounds of pears and two pounds of apples as the plane made its way through Canada and the North Atlantic. He ate over Norway, into Russia and past Kazahkstan and, finally, into China.

He was still chewing on the last of his food when Nicole Meese, the panda's main keeper during his 4.5 years at the National Zoo, handed off responsibility for taking care of Tai Shan to her Chinese counterpart Wu Daifu.

"I knew he'd do well but this was beyond what I expected," Meese said. "The flight didn't faze him at all."

The beloved, American-born but Chinese-owned panda whose departure from Washington on Thursday broke the hearts of millions of fans was welcomed to his parents' homeland with a brief ceremony that included a performance by a children's acrobatics troupe, a formal handover of papers ending his loan from China to the United States, and brief remarks from representatives of the two countries who both called him a bridge between the two nations.

"Pandas are an enduring¿and endearing¿symbol of the friendship between the people and government of China and the United States," said David Brown, U.S. consul general in Chengdu.

Chinese wildlife officials in turn thanked the United States for taking care of Tai Shan so well.

The adolescent panda, who was born and spent his entire life within the confines of the National Zoo in Washington, now starts a new stage of his life. His primary job will no longer be to delight tourists; it will be to breed.

In the United States, Tai Shan was special, the only baby panda to survive past infancy in the nation's capital. But at the panda center in the lush mountains of south-central China, he will be just one of 150.

Gone are the days of custom-made birthday cakes, waterfalls and fans cheering his every move. Chinese officials here say that they feel no need to make special accommodations for Tai Shan ¿ in housing, food or language. If conditions are not to his liking, he'll have to adjust.

"Americans are too emotional about Tai Shan," said Wu Daifu, the 32-year-old zookeeper who was assigned to be the adolescent panda's principal feeder and friend.

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