Tai Shan, the National Zoo's baby giant panda, is not even 5 months old, but he already has some swooning girlfriends in, of all places, Great Britain.
There's Louise in Hertfordshire. And Doreen in Hampshire. And Chrissy in Worcestershire. Not to mention Julie, Sue, Jill, Elaine, Sharron, Liz, Denny and Katherine, spread out across the U.K. from Bristol to Liverpool, from Oxford to Northern Ireland.
Every day when they get home from work, or when their housework is finished, they log on to the Web, pull up live images of Washington's panda cub and spend the evening sending instant messages to one another:
Chrissy: "I just don't know what gets into Gobbo these days. He's such a ham. . . . He really does love the camera. 'Look at me I'm the greatest panda in the world.' "
Doreen: "I agree with everything you said. He's a darling . . . and I want him for Christmas."
"Gobbo" is the nickname these British ladies have bestowed upon Tai Shan.
"It's an English slang phrase for someone who never shuts his mouth," explained Chrissy Beahan when I rang her. The 53-year-old housewife is the leader of the Mother Hens Club, the dozen or so British women who gab daily about our exuberantly vocal panda.
Chrissy and I both had the Animal Planet panda cam up on our screens. Tai Shan grabbed a piece of bamboo and cradled it in his mouth like a Marlboro.
"Oh, he's smoking a cigarette," Chrissy said. "He's a darling little thing, he really is."
The members of the Mother Hens Club met online last summer when they all were watching a nest of baby peregrine falcons on the BBC's Web site and trading messages on a BBC message board. After the birds flew off, Chrissy went in search of more cute babies to fawn over. She found Washington's then-nameless panda cub.
It was love at first sight. Although the Mother Hens check in with baby pandas in San Diego, Atlanta and elsewhere, their hearts belong to Tai Shan. With the obsessive attention to detail that characterizes boy-band groupies, they comment on his every move.
"Then interspersed with that, we just talk about anything," said Chrissy. "Our families, what's going on in the day. We help each other out with problems. . . . It's just idle chitchat, really."
The Mother Hens have never been in one another's house -- they've never met in person -- but they know every nook and cranny of the panda enclosure, from the rocks Tai Shan likes to scramble over to the thick metal pole that he hangs on, a move they refer to as "pole dancing."
They fretted when mother Mei Xiang dropped Tai Shan on his head a while back. They're concerned that he might catch a cold and worry that he might be getting bored. ("We keep saying he needs toys in there, like a doggy toy," Chrissy said.)
They know all the human characters in Tai Shan's life, too. Assistant curator Lisa Stevens, keeper Brenda Morgan and other zoo employees pop up on screen from time to time.
"There's a nice young chap," Chrissy said. "Tall, blond hair. He walks around all tan and bronze. Doreen used to have a flutter about him: 'Now my boyfriend's on again,' she'd say."
Chrissy's husband, Frank, thinks she's "absolutely nuts. My husband thinks it's just a bear. But he's a bear that is rare, and he's going to be the future of the survival of the panda race."
What is it about our panda cub that is so irresistible?
"I know this is going to sound odd, but for me it's Mei Xiang," said Chrissy. "She is an absolute angel for a first-time mum. He can beat her up, he can tear strips off her, he can bite her and she is such a loving, gentle, caring bear. . . . She holds him and looks at him as if he's the world to her. She absolutely loves him. And he's a little -- how do I put this? -- he's a little devil."
Ah, the bad bears. Don't they always get the girls?
The Perfect Gift
A reader called a few weeks ago to ask if we were once again going to be raising money for Children's Hospital, as Washington Post readers have done for 60 years.
She was so glad when I said yes. A woman of advanced age, she said that not only is there nothing she needs this Christmas, there's nothing that her children and grandchildren can't live without either. I could tell it would pain her to buy one more cheaply made toy or soon-to-be-forgotten bauble just for the sake of giving a gift.
What she wanted to do was make a donation to Children's Hospital in the name of all those kids and grandkids. But of course, I said, operators are standing by. (Well, not literally, but figuratively.)
If this is something you'd like to do, then do it. I'll even send a letter to the people you're honoring, informing them of your generous decision. All donations are tax deductible, remember, and help pay the hospital bills of kids who can't afford it.
Our campaign goes through Jan. 20.
Our goal: $600,000.
Our total so far: $6,656.31.
There are three easy ways to donate:
Make a check or money order payable to "Children's Hospital" and mail it to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.
Go online, to www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital and click on "Make a Donation."
To contribute by Visa or MasterCard by phone, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions on the recorded message.
My e-mail: email@example.com.