The National Zoo's first surviving giant panda cub, already a huge hit with webcam viewers, will make his official public debut Dec. 8, the zoo announced yesterday. Free, timed-entry tickets to the Panda House will be distributed via the zoo's Web site beginning Monday.
Additional information about ticket distribution and viewing hours will be released later this week. Officials are bracing for an onslaught of traffic at the Web site, where tickets will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. The Web site can be reached at http://nationalzoo.si.edu or www.fonz.org.
Visits probably will be limited to 10 minutes and confined to morning hours at first to maximize the chances of seeing Tai Shan. He usually spends his mornings in the public exhibit area and then goes back to his private den in the afternoon to nap.
"We're still working out the details," Peper Long, a zoo spokeswoman, said yesterday. "The cub is growing so fast, and his activity is changing. We want to try to make sure the public can view him during his most active time. We'll expand the hours as his activity level increases."
Tai Shan, now four months old, is the first healthy cub for the zoo after more than three decades of trying to breed giant pandas there. The cub's mother, Mei Xiang, was artificially inseminated in the spring with semen from the zoo's male giant panda, Tian Tian.
The size of a stick of butter at birth, Tai Shan now weighs more than 17 pounds and measures nearly 29 inches. The zoo's live panda webcam has drawn an estimated 7 million visits since the cub's birth July 9.
The cub is on limited public view this month for a few thousand select zoo boosters, including donors and some members of Friends of the National Zoo, the zoo's nonprofit support organization. Zoo employees, volunteers and Smithsonian Institution staff workers also have been getting a look at the cub.
There will be a special preview for the news media Nov. 29.
The bears, with their distinctive black and white markings, are an endangered species. About 1,600 giant pandas live in the wild in China, and 160 more are in captivity worldwide.
Over the weekend, according to reports from the Panda House, Mei Xiang moved Tai Shan to another den, opening up new opportunities for the adventuresome cub. Tai Shan enjoys "playtime" each morning after Mei Xiang goes outside to eat, keepers say. He comes out of the den as soon as she leaves, ready for a day of exploration. He is now responding to the sounds of doors and the voices of the staff.
The cub likes to check out the indoor public exhibit areas and has tried sitting up against the rock work -- before tumbling over. When Mei Xiang returns, she takes him back to the den, where she washes and nurses him.
Yesterday morning, Tai Shan followed his mother outdoors to a small patio just outside the building, where Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are weighed.
In other panda-related developments, FONZ yesterday announced the winners of its "Pennies for Pandas" contest, in which children across the country were asked to come up with money-raising campaigns for the zoo's Giant Panda Conservation Fund. More than $16,000 was raised by 159 children to support a variety of conservation efforts, including studies of giant panda behavior and reproductive biology and surveys of giant panda habitats in China.
The main winners, who will each receive a trip for four to Washington and a private visit with the pandas, were Kelsey Hicks, 9, of Evansville, Ind., who sold black and white bracelets; Riley Burfeind, 9, of Falmouth, Maine, who collected donations at a panda festival in her back yard; Brittany Luckett, 11, of Citrus Heights, Calif., who sold panda items in her mother's jewelry store; and Jonathan Gordon, 13, of Orlando, who sold felt panda pillows.
The contest was co-sponsored by Fujifilm and Animal Planet.
Also, four area merchants -- CVS, Hecht's, Whole Foods Market and Panda Express restaurant -- are serving as "Giant Panda Community Partners" through the winter holidays. Each has pledged to donate $25,000 to the zoo's conservation fund. In addition, they are offering panda-related items, with all or a portion of the proceeds earmarked for the fund.
For links to webcams of the cub and more information, including the latest video, go to www.washingtonpost.com/metro