Dawn Rogers says she and her two teenagers "are really into animals" and often visit the National Zoo, even though it is a two-hour drive from their home in Bel Air, Md. When they can't get there, she has found a way to feel closer to the animals: adopt one of them.
As a surprise for her daughter, Rogers recently made a contribution to the zoo and joined its "Adopt a Species" program. She was offered a choice from among more than 30 types of animals and decided to adopt the cute bear with the unique black-and-white markings: the ever-popular giant pandas.
"My family has always been fascinated by giant pandas," she said.
They have plenty of company. Since the birth in July of a giant panda cub, the zoo has had a rush of people who have sent in money -- from $40 to $1,000 per donor -- to "adopt" the pandas. On a single day last month, right after the male cub got a name, Tai Shan, the zoo received 35 adoption orders, almost all of them for the giant pandas.
The Adopt a Species program was launched in 1997 and is operated by Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ), the zoo's nonprofit support organization. Participation has grown steadily, according to FONZ, from 691 in 2003 to 1,148 so far this year, with the usual spurt of holiday orders still to come.
"The pandas have always been popular, but so are the elephants and the tigers," said Pam Bucklinger, who manages FONZ's membership and education program.
"We get a lot of teachers who adopt one of the reptiles to get the kids excited" when studying the rain forest.
The giant panda, Asian elephant, Sumatran tiger and the cheetah, all of which have produced offspring at the zoo in recent years, are the four favorites among those who sign up to adopt a species. But other mammals, as well as birds, invertebrates and reptiles, also draw the public's interest.
Sometimes the interest is seasonal, Bucklinger said, noting that the hissing cockroach and the tarantula are more popular around Halloween. Sometimes it is spurred by pop culture. A TV cartoon show, for instance, has created new fans for the naked mole-rat.
The zoo, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, has an operating budget of $17.8 million. The adoption program has brought in more than $82,000 this year, up from about $50,000 in 2003.
The additional income goes into a central fund that helps augment animal care and research work at the zoo and its Conservation and Research Center in Northern Virginia, including medical care, food, equipment, supplies and habitat improvements.
Adopt a Species funds have purchased enrichment materials -- sturdy "boomer balls" for the bears to play with; pumpkins for the lemurs; scales for weighing the animals; and oxygen that is used in physical examinations.
They also helped pay to care for a Przewalski's horse after it was rejected by its mother and for a complicated artificial insemination process that produced the zoo's first elephant calf, Kandula, in 2001.
Many other zoos have Adopt a Species programs, although the levels of donations and benefits vary. At the National Zoo, those who contribute $40 receive a fact sheet about the species, a photograph of the animal, a personalized Adopt a Species certificate and a subscription to the FONZ newsletter.
Other items, including a plush toy and a tote bag, are added for higher donations. For $1,000, the donor also gets a special visit with the selected animal and a keeper who helps tend to it.
The donations are tax deductible, and most adoption packages arrive at the donor's home in a cardboard animal carrier that has air holes and a "Do Not Feed" sticker.
Kelsey Rogers, 14, and her brother, Randy, 19, were excited when they opened the box from FONZ and discovered that their mom had adopted a panda.
"I have the picture of the baby panda on the wall next to my bed," said Kelsey, who has been closely following the progress of the cub.
The Rogers family paid $65. Others have adopted at the $1,000 level because they can't resist the lure of the visit, especially if it's with a panda.
Lisa Tane of Westchester County, N.Y., paid $1,000 a couple of years ago to adopt a panda for her daughter Olivia's 10th birthday. They planned their trip to Washington around going to the zoo, and Olivia got to feed the panda pair, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian.
"She was beyond thrilled," Tane said. The special close-up visit "was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. She was just inches away from them. It's very different than just going to the zoo and seeing the animal."
Matt Olear, a FONZ spokesman, said that the chance to feed the pandas is not a typical benefit for $1,000 donors and that access to the pandas will be more restricted now that there is a cub.
Ed and Janet Ginn of North Haledon, N.J., haven't fed the pandas. But the repeat $1,000 donors, who also have taken a FONZ-sponsored trip to China, recently got what much of Washington is pining for: a chance to see Tai Shan.
They saw "the baby" last month at a special weekend reception in the Panda House for about 20 VIP donors. The couple have "everything panda" in their home and have incorporated "pandaholic" and "pandahugger" into their e-mail addresses.
"The pandas are our children," said Janet Ginn. "They've been our passion for the last five years."
The new cub, she reported, "is adorable."
More information about the Adopt a Species program is available at www.fonz.org/adopt.htm or by calling 202-633-3039.