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Q & A With Post Reporter D'Vera Cohn

Thursday, Dec. 7, 2000, 1:45 p.m. EST

D'Vera Cohn is a city reporter for The Washington Post. She returns Wednesday afternoon from a trip to China, where she accompanied National Zoo officials who were there to pick up the Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, who will live at the zoo for the next 10 years.

For more information, please see the Pandas Special Report.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us, D'Vera Cohn. Can you give us a brief overview of the trip to China to retrieve the pandas?

D'Vera Cohn: I flew to China last Tuesday, Nov. 28, on the same plane with the group from the zoo -- director Lucy Spelman and three of her staff. I arrived at the Wolong Reserve Friday (China time -- Thursday here) and spent several days following the zoo folks to meetings, watching them get to know their pandas, talking with Wolong staff and seeing the dozens of pandas there. I got back to Washington last night, after the pandas arrived.

Woodley Park, DC: Hello,
I'm delighted that the pandas have arrived right in the neighborhood where I live. However, my neighbors and I are a bit concerned about the huge crowds the pandas will attract to the Zoo and our neighborhood. Is the Zoo taking any steps to mitigate the impact on Woodley/Cleveland Park? To deal with the crush of people, are they planning to do anything like distribute timed entry tickets like the National Gallery does for some of their blockbuster exhibitions?

D'Vera Cohn: I'd prepare for a crush no matter what the zoo tries to do. I've heard they are thinking about timed-entry tickets, at least temporarily, although they seem to think the real frenzy will die down after a month or so and it will get more manageable. In Atlanta, which got pandas last year, that's what happened.
The zoo does plan to control how many people go in at a time, even if they don't do timed-entry tickets.

Alexandria, VA: When is there going to be a public "panda cam"? I went to the zoo's web site and there is NOTHING!!!! why? I heard that the corporate financiers have their own personal "panda cams" and are greedily not sharing the pandas with the public. This is very bad. FREE THE PANDA CAMS!!!!

D'Vera Cohn: I know the zoo does not plan to activate its own panda cams -- which will show what they are up to in their enclosures -- until they know the pandas are disease-free and doing well, or maybe until they come out of quarantine, which will be next month. We are getting some fresh photos of them today, I'm told. The sponsors did get some special access, but some of them -- notably Animal Planet -- are passing along much of what they get.

Washington: If the pandas have babies, will the National Zoo get to keep them?

D'Vera Cohn: Any cubs born would be the property of China, and the zoo would have to pay a fee to exhibit them. China plans to take them back when they are a year or two old.

Washington, DC: I saw Mei Xiang and Tian Tian's personalities described as "cat" and "dog" respectively -- not sure what that means, but reports do seem to indicate they're expressive pandas. Can you provide some insight into their personalities?

D'Vera Cohn: I think what Dave Powell, a National Zoo scientist, meant when he said that was the Tian is more people-oriented and Mei sees the world a bit more on her own terms. As a cat person, that makes sense to me!
Tian is a big eater, a bit of a ham, and probably will become the crowd favorite. But Mei is a cute critter, and she will have her fans too.

Washington, D.C.: Is there any opposition at all against the Pandas; the cost of getting them here, the deal itself or current political issues?

Did the mayor and D.C. chip in the promised million?

D'Vera Cohn: I've gotten some calls and e-mail from people who think it is a waste of money to bring them here, or who feel that attention should be given more to pandas in the wild. The D.C. government did not provide a million dollars, the D.C. Council members we talked to say they have no plans to do so.

Malaysia: The Chinese people emphasis significant importance on "friendship." Do you see any possibility that the Chinese Government will ever present another pair of Giant Panda as "GIFT" to the USA in the near future, basing on the state of relationship of both governments?

D'Vera Cohn: The zoo tried to get a "discount" on the million-dollar annual fee for borrowing a panda, saying the zoo is a special case because it cannot charge admission and citing all the scientific expertise zoo scientists could contribute to help panda conservation in China. The Chinese government would not budge. So I think it's doubtful they would give another panda, or pair of them.

Washington, D.C.: Not to stir up controversy, because I'm really looking forward to seeing the pandas (and hopefully seeing Washington, D.C. focus on something other than pregnant chads!), but I've heard that the National Zoo has contributed some huge amount of money for the panda preserves in China, and I'm wondering what kind of guarantees there are to assure that this money is going to that cause and not to the general Chinese government coffers?

D'Vera Cohn: The zoo is supposed to monitor where its money is going, and plans to hire a Chinese-speaking scientist to help do so. In addition, there is a Chinese-based staff member of the trade group representing American zoos who is supposed to keep an eye on that. The World Wildlife Fund and others have expressed concern about the zoo's ability to monitor where the big bucks are going, but zoo officials say they are confident they can do it.

WDC: Quick question: Do you know what the Pandas' names mean in English?

D'Vera Cohn: Tian Tian means "more and more" -- don't you love it? Especially since he likes to eat so much...
Her name means "beautiful fragrance."

WDC 20007: It strikes me that FedEx is getting more publicity from flying the pandas than from naming the Redskins' stadium.

How did this come about? Is FedEx footing part of the $10 million? Or is this the end of the company's interest in our bears?

(CAN'T WAIT - !!! - to see them!)

D'Vera Cohn: FedEx just paid for the flight, which company officials said amounted to an in-kind donation of more than half a million dollars. They said they had a team of people working on this for five months.
I don't know exactly how this came about, but FedEx was the first company to enter the China shipping business and is fighting for more routes, so they have some history in China. I don't know about their future plans re pandas, if any.

DC: Do you think the pandas will be the top attraction at the zoo? Were Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling?

D'Vera Cohn: No question -- those black and white bears will be numero uno. Zoo officials project that attendance will jump 20 percent because of them. In fact, zoo officials are saying things like "this will bring people back to the zoo." They plan more focus on these so-called charismatic mega-vertebrates, the big animals that bring people in.
Hsing and Ling were tops in their time too.

Nation's capital: What if it turns out the pandas like each other, but just "as friends"?

D'Vera Cohn: Well, there's always artificial insemination. At the Wolong reserve, which has produced more panda cubs than anywhere else, they use natural mating followed by a dose of AI, just to make sure.

Washington, D.C.: How big are the pandas (weight and length)? At what age are pandas considered full-grown? What will their weight and length be at that time?

D'Vera Cohn: He is just over 200 pounds and she is just over 100 pounds. I do not know length. They are considered sexually mature - able to breed - at 4 to 6 years of age. There is one mother at Wolong who had her first baby at 4 1/2, so it could be that Mei could be a mom in just over two years.

Arlington: Why do you think the pandas didn't get jet lag?

D'Vera Cohn: I have no idea - but I'll ask the zoo folks and try to put the answer in my story tomorrow. (A quick promo for our print edition!)

Alexandria, VA: I'm thrilled that we have a new First Panda Couple at the Zoo, but can't forget Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, whom I grew up watching. Does the zoo have any plans for some sort of permanent memorial to these well-loved residents?

D'Vera Cohn: They are planning do put up some history of the previous panels in the indoor exhibit area of the Panda House, I am told by my colleague, Karlyn Barker, who is sitting by my side.

Washington, DC: What was your impression of the Wolong Reserve and its work? Is that where our $million per year will be going, for the most part?

D'Vera Cohn: Most of the zoo's money will not be going to Wolong, but to other less-developed panda reserves in other parts of China.
Wolong is doing a great job at producing babies, and they have learned some things about how to do it that the zoo hopes to emulate. Conditions there range from excellent to somewhat depressing. They have new natural enclosures on a hillside that are really neat, but also some old-style rusty cages and plain yards.

Reston, VA: What do the Chinese do with loan fees? Are they used completely to help preserve the pandas?

Also, were our new pandas conceived naturally, or artificially, in China?

D'Vera Cohn: The Chinese are supposed to use the loan fees to preserve the giant panda in the wild. There is a national panda plan, and the money is supposed to be used for items on the plan list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approves each project as well.
As I mentioned in an earlier response, the Wolong reserve uses both natural and artificial insemination, so I'm not clear on which one worked to produce Mei and Tian.

Washington, DC: The TV films I have seen show the pandas playing. As I remember, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling were kept pretty much apart except in breeding season. I believe they are being kept together for now. Do you have any idea how the zoo will approach their "socializing?" They seem to like each other a lot more than Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling did.

D'Vera Cohn: A lot has been learned since Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling. Then, everyone thought the pandas had to be kept apart until they bred. Now, scientists think if they get to know each other as youngsters, it creates a better climate for later mating. Wolong has been putting young pandas together since the early 90s. But when they are breeding age and hormones kick in, keepers will be on the alert for too much aggression.
It's hard to compare Hsing-Ling and Tian-Mei because they are being treated differently.

Bethesda, MD: Will they be old enough to reproduce in 2001?

D'Vera Cohn: She is 2 1/3 and the youngest mother at Wolong was 4 1/2 -- so I'd say not likely.

Bethesda, MD: My understanding is that Pandas eat a lot. Is there any bamboo farm especially for the newly arrived pandas near the zoo? And how much would it cost to feed them each year?

D'Vera Cohn: There is a bamboo farm in Fort Washington that the zoo harvests from. Zoo officials were concerned that -- because it's a different variety than the animals got in China -- the pandas might not take to it. But I'm told today they are scarfing it down. The zoo says it plans to spend $400,000 a year caring for them, including food.

darien, IL: Can you give us your impressions on the pandas' home back in China? Did you see other pandas around? Any panda cubs?

D'Vera Cohn: See my earlier response about conditions at Wolong.
I saw tons of pandas. Well, dozens. It was somewhat strange (but glorious; I'm not complaining) -- to see so many in one place. The best ones were groups of young pandas housed together, climbing trees, wrestling, etc.
I did see a couple of panda cubs, looking through a window as they were being weighed. The keeper gave one a kiss as he put it on the scale. Sigh.

Olney, MD: How many pandas are currently on loan by the Chinese government around the world, in addition to our "new arrivals"?

D'Vera Cohn: There are about 120 in zoos around the world, and I think about 100 of those are in China. In the U.S., there is a panda pair in Atlanta and another pair, with a cub, in San Diego.

D'Vera Cohn: One addendum - a reader asked which groups are working to save wild pandas. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is the most prominent one.

washingtonpost.com: That's all the time we have for today. Thanks for joining us! Any closing thoughts on what we can expect in the coming months from the zoo, and from the pandas?

D'Vera Cohn: They are very adorable animals, and adorable-times-100 when they are together.
The message the zoo officials say they will try to project are that these animals are the representatives of their wild cousins, and saving the wild population from extinction needs to be a priority. But they also are thrilled they got such a cute couple.

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