Fans of panda Tai Shan say goodbye before he flies to China

On the last full day Tai Shan will be at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., the panda's most ardent followers give emotional farewells to an animal that they say has provided companionship and comfort.
By Michael E. Ruane
Thursday, February 4, 2010

Frances Nguyen is swathed in black -- black boots, black pants, black hat and a black parka with a long black camera lens protruding from under the hood.

It is a cold morning at the National Zoo, and the only part of Nguyen that is exposed is her right index finger, with pink nail polish, which is clicking her camera shutter again and again.

Before her, Tai Shan, the famous giant panda who is about to leave the zoo, sits in the sun on a snow-covered hillside, cracking bamboo stalks with his teeth and filling the camera's lens.

Nguyen has photographed Tai Shan many times, 1,500 shots on a good day, 200 when things were slow. Weekends. Days off. Vacations. For four years, since right after he was born, she has been one of his most zealous fans -- entranced by his life, and how it illuminated hers.

She was born in Saigon amid the upheaval of the Vietnam War and was separated from her parents when she was a child. As an adult, she was drawn to something about the bear -- a kinship, perhaps, with this youngster of another species. She could not stay away. She needed to see and chronicle as many moments of his life as she could.

In turn, she says, he has altered hers: She got to watch a beautiful animal grow up. She found friends and a community at the panda house. She met her husband there. She and Foo Cheung, 40, a genome scientist and panda fanatic, were married in September. And last week, as she prepared to bid Tai Shan goodbye, she learned that she is pregnant.

So in the cold of Monday morning, with only a few days to go until his departure for China, Nguyen rose before dawn and stood for hours staring at him through her telephoto lens, clicking the shutter over and over, getting every last detail and trying to ignore the white shipping crate at the back of his enclosure.

"Tai has brought so much good karma," Nguyen, a Web designer for the federal government, said before she left for the zoo that morning. "There's a lot of things in life that are precious that you cannot see or you cannot speak of, but it is there in front of you."

"I was drawn in because of how cute [he was] and how his interaction with his mom was basic," she said. "It grew into deep love for him and other animals, and . . . it developed into friendship, and even marriage and love. I have him to thank."

Tai Shan, who was born at the zoo July 9, 2005, is set to leave Thursday, ending Washington's love affair with the only giant panda to survive beyond infancy at the zoo.

He is scheduled to leave the zoo via tractor-trailer about 9 a.m. for an 11:30 a.m. flight, via FedEx air freighter, out of Dulles International Airport.

He is being taken, according to an agreement with China, to a breeding program in the mountainous interior of the country. Giant pandas are endangered. Only a few thousand are thought to be left in the wild.

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