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Tears among the snowflakes as crowds say goodbye to panda

While cut short because of the snowy weather conditions, the National Zoo's farewell celebration for panda Tai Shan still included some committed visitors, time for the beloved panda to play outside, and even a surprise proposal. Tai Shan leaves Washington, D.C., for China early Thursday morning.

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010

Andrea Smith yelled.

"I see him! I see him! I see him up there!"

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She laughed out loud to the assembled crowd: "This is my first time! I see him!"

Momentarily, joyfully delirious and clad in her gray panda sweater, she called out again: "It's my first time! But I see him!"

Tai Shan, the National Zoo's giant panda rock star, can have that effect on people. Take Saturday. Hundreds gathered from near and far in frigid, snowy weather for the zoo's official Tai Shan farewell bash.

From as far away as Florida, North Carolina and New Jersey, the panda lovers came to huddle in parkas, ponchos and blankets for final glimpses of the black-eared wonder bear before he ships out to China on Thursday.

As snow piled on their hats, shoulders and cameras, the "pandarazzi," as they call themselves, jostled, hugged and exuded a kind of happy madness.

People wore panda masks and panda ears and had black spots painted on their noses. A little girl in a pink hat hollered that she'd love Tai Shan forever.

And Mike Salamon of Columbia Heights picked this panda moment to propose to his girlfriend, Vicki Wanielista. As flakes fell on the leaves and logs in the pandas' outdoor compound, he got down on one knee and pulled a ring from his coat pocket.

Vicki cried, and said yes. Now, they said, they would remember forever the last time they saw Tai Shan.

The weather on Saturday put a bit of crunch on the event: The zoo closed early, and the celebration was cut short by two hours. But the conditions also provided a magical backdrop as the 4-year-old panda sat amid falling snow munching leafy stalks of bamboo. "They make you happy," Smith, 52, of Hyattsville, said of the pandas. "People need to come out and just rejoice."

Tai Shan, who was born at the zoo July 9, 2005, is the only giant panda cub to survive there beyond infancy.

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