Love, worry send Tai Shan fans to China

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.

A friendly woman with a warm smile and contagious laugh, Harper, a pension consultant, talked freely about how she learned to bake just so she could make panda-shaped cakes on special occasions. How she later learned photography and bought a professional-grade camera for her weekend shoots at the zoo.

Her husband supports her interest and has even tagged along on some of her many trips to see Tai Shan in Washington. But he has also - half jokingly, half seriously - asked her to dress less frequently in black and white.

It all began, Harper explained, with the "panda cam" - the live Web site that streamed 24-hour coverage of Tai Shan shortly after his much publicized birth in 2005, the first cub to survive past infancy at the National Zoo.

Just a few months before, Harper's mother had passed away. And as she watched the baby panda follow his mom around, and the way his mom lovingly nuzzled him back, something about it just grabbed hold of her.

She wasn't the only one. During his 41/2 years in Washington, Tai Shan and his mom adorned the cover of National Geographic. His fans included first lady Laura Bush and the queen of Bhutan. His cuteness inspired thousands of gifts, letters, even wedding invitations sent to the zoo. And when Washington's most beloved animal finally left, it was as though the entire city went into mourning. Several of the four women made the papers in the ensuing coverage of devastated Tai Shan fans.

Harper also read articles from China in which his new keepers vowed to treat him like any other panda. No more sweet potatoes or pears (his favorites). No special treatment.

Among the four women, she noted, only one has children. Tai Shan, she said, was in many ways their baby. As Ney put it: "Watching him go was a little like sending your kid off to school. You just don't know. You worry."

A thrilling trip

The women, however, were careful not to say any of this as they entered the panda reserve with a tour group from the U.S. Like everything else about this trip, they had deliberately planned how they wanted to be perceived by Tai Shan's new keepers: friendly, easygoing, sane.

But when they finally reached Tai Shan's new home - a spacious concrete pen leading out to a large bamboo-lined courtyard - the squeals of joy and tears flowed immediately and freely.

The women volunteered through a new program at the Bifengxia panda research center. The program was designed to give foreign donors a hands-on look at the center, but has since been opened up to all tourists. Although their tour included just two days at the reserve, the women stayed on for almost an entire week.

The trip was expensive overall - roughly $5,000 per person - but the fee to work with the pandas was relatively small, about $15 a day plus $22 for the uniform. Most volunteers are assigned their jobs, but the women's enthusiasm persuaded officials to let them toil mostly on Tai Shan's pen.

They were quickly put to work, their bodies aching at the end of each day. But what made everything worth it was the feeding, when they got to touch Tai Shan for the first time through bars - something they always wanted but were never allowed to do in Washington.

Upon learning that the women had paid to do such work, one Chinese man taking photos of them was simply dumbfounded. "I don't understand it," said Ma Yueguang, visiting from the nearby city of Chengdu. "That kind of hard labor is what the poor migrant workers do in China. They spent money to do this?"

Beyond fees and donations, the women also brought loads of gifts for Tai Shan's keepers: T-shirts, chocolates, even trinkets for their children. And after a long morning's work last Friday, they invited one keeper to lunch, treading lightly with their questions: Does he like working at the panda center? What does he think of Tai? How has their baby bear been these past months?

At home in China

The next day, in an interview with a reporter at the reserve's office, the center's vice director of panda care tried to address those questions. For the most part, the official, Luo Bo, spoke in facts and figures.

Tai Shan, he explained, arrived underweight at 196 pounds and with a flabby belly. His Chinese keepers tackled both problems by preying on his love of food, hiding snacks to force him to exercise while simultaneously bulking him up. In just seven months he had gained 40 pounds. (A spokeswoman for the National Zoo disputed the underweight characterization and attributed his weight gain in China to seasonal fluctuations.)

In another year or two, Luo said, he'd be ready for mating. Already, they were working out his hind legs in anticipation, hanging food above his head to practice mating positions.

Yes. But is he happy?

At this, Luo's face softened and he put aside the spreadsheets and numbers.

Ever since Tai Shan's arrival, Luo has seen the steady trickle of American fans to his panda reserve. He's read how these Tai Shan lovers are often laughed at and derided, both in the United States and China. But Luo said he welcomed their passion and even admired it.

Throughout much of China, the concept of animal rights is just emerging, he explained, and abuse of animals is still prevalent. "When you are poor you only worry about what you will eat, where you will sleep. Things like animal rights are considered a luxury," he said.

"But that's changing in China," Luo said. "If the Chinese see just how much these foreigners are able to love a single panda, perhaps they will start loving animals, too."

Hearing such talk from his keepers has done much to soothe the four women's worries, but it hasn't stopped the tears.

Outside Tai Shan's pen after a recent morning's feeding, one of his keepers, Liu Juan, recounted how the American women had cried upon seeing Tai Shan; a few cried again after feeding and touching him for the first time. And she strongly suspected they would cry once again when it came time to leave him.

"Some people think it's strange, but I understand their feelings," she confessed. "I cried too when I saw pandas for the first time. I want to tell the women that we also love pandas. That's why we all work here. They don't need to worry about Tai Shan."

Staff researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company