Love, worry send Tai Shan fans to China

Christie Harper of Derwood, Md. traveled with a group of women to China to visit Tai Shan, who left the National Zoo in February. The women were allowed to feed, touch and even clean up after him.
By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; 11:42 PM

BIFENGXIA PANDA BASE, CHINA - For four middle-aged American women, a trip to China was a chance to pull out all of their panda finery: the panda earrings, the necklaces, and the many, many panda plush toys.

But what they experienced when they got to the country's largest panda reserve topped anything they'd ever done in years of devotion to their beloved bear, Tai Shan.

Hunched over in brown janitorial coveralls, they used their hands to gather new ursine artifacts straight from the source: clumps of fibrous, multicolored panda poop.

The sight of the Western women scrubbing down the panda pens was enough to cause flocks of Chinese tourists to swivel their cameras to catch the action. A few even stopped the women in their tracks to pose with them for pictures.

For the Americans, the up-close panda time was a privilege for which they had spent lavishly and planned meticulously. The four of them - three from Washington, one from New York - had dreamed up this trip into the bamboo forests of Sichuan province months ago, almost from the moment the National Zoo in Washington announced that Tai Shan was leaving.

His departure in February left the women heartbroken and desperately wondering what his life would be like. But what worried them most was this: In a faraway land with hundreds of other pandas and 1.3 billion strangers, would anyone love Tai Shan like they had throughout his life?

That's what they came here last week to find out. And to get as close as possible, they even persuaded his new handlers to let them feed and clean up after him.

It may seem like a bizarre idea, the women admitted, maybe even a little excessive. But as any songwriter or romantic will tell you, you don't always get to choose who you love. And when that somebody turns out to be a panda, and he moves halfway across the world, you do what it takes to make sure he's all right.

"We don't want to come off like crazy or rich, entitled foreigners," explained Karen Wille, 56, a business consultant from Arlington. "He's their panda now. . . . But we just want to see how he's doing."

Friends at the zoo

The four women were complete strangers just five years ago, their friendship forged over long days at the National Zoo. They went once a week whenever possible to watch Tai Shan, to talk to one another and to seize any chance to speak with his keepers. They became regular donors to the zoo; one of the women even paid $1,200 at a fundraiser for an ink print of Tai Shan's paw.

Among the four women, Wille is the quickest to cry. Elise Ney, 50, an audiologist from Bethesda, is the strong one, always upbeat. The third woman, who lives in New York but said she did not want her name published, is the most private and least inclined to explain to a reporter how she ended up crossing oceans and continents just for a bear.

It was the youngest - Christie Harper, 42, of Derwood, Md. - who served as the master planner, mapping out each step of the trip.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company