The National Zoo's giant panda cub met the press yesterday, frolicking on cue in his exhibit as hardened scribes and news crews gushed at his antics and elbowed each other for a better view.
More than 100 journalists showed up at dawn and stood in line to see the 5-month-old Tai Shan, who didn't disappoint. Like a toddler, he squirmed in the arms of his keepers, climbed and tumbled over a rock pile and walked through a small stream. He also showed a penchant for putting things in his mouth -- in this case, a piece of hay.
"He's darn cute, that's for sure," said John Gibbons, a zoo spokesman, explaining the appeal of the cub, who goes on public display Dec. 8.
More than 13,000 free, timed-entry tickets to see the cub through early January were distributed to the public last week via the zoo's Web site. More tickets are to be made available soon.
Since Tai Shan's birth July 9, panda fans in the Washington area and around the world have relied on a webcam in the Panda House to see him. Until yesterday, the only photos made available to the public were those taken by the zoo -- and the tight controls only seemed to heighten interest in seeing the panda baby. Zoo officials said they got daily requests from news organizations seeking to be the first to get a peek at Tai Shan, whose name means "peaceful mountain."
More that 50 media outlets signed up for the preview, and major networks did live broadcasts from the animal park. Reporters and TV crews with local and national audiences were there, along with media representatives from China, Japan and Britain. They traipsed through the Panda House in five shifts, getting 10 minutes or so to visit.
A keeper carried the squirming cub, who is most active in the morning, from his den into the public exhibit. He quickly began to climb the rock work, drawing gasps of concern when he toppled over, then laughter when he righted himself and resumed his explorations.
"Feisty little fellow," one reporter declared as the Panda House filled with the rapid sounds of clicking camera shutters.
"He pulls himself up like a gymnast," noted another visitor.
At one point, the cub fell from a rock ledge and lay there, his feet in the air. "He looks like a little turtle on his back," a journalist observed.
Zoo employees said interest in Tai Shan reflects his status as the zoo's first surviving giant panda cub and the great strides made in breeding the endangered species.
"He's special because he's the nation's panda and he's drawn quite a bit of attention to the plight of pandas," said Lisa Stevens, an assistant curator at the zoo with responsibility for the Panda House.
She marveled at Tai Shan's rapid development. The cub who weighed just 4 ounces at birth tipped the scales yesterday at 21 pounds.
Only about 1,600 giant pandas remain in the bamboo forests of China, and another 160 or so are in captivity worldwide. Tai Shan was conceived through artificial insemination, a reproductive option that had not been perfected 20 years ago when the zoo was trying to breed an earlier pair of pandas.
Tai Shan's parents, mother Mei Xiang and father Tian Tian, are on a 10-year, $10 million loan from China, and both will return there in 2010. The privately raised funds are earmarked for conservation programs aimed at building base-line knowledge of panda breeding and improving panda survival in the wild. The Smithsonian Institution, which oversees the zoo, has a new program to raise $400,000 to continue its panda research program at the zoo and in China.
Tai Shan will be sent to China when he is 2.
"We'll miss him, of course," said Jo Gayle Howard, the reproductive scientist who performed the artificial insemination procedure that produced the cub. "But we're excited our cub can go back and have lots of other pandas to breed with."
The cub is one of 11 pandas at four U.S. zoos -- in Washington, Atlanta, Memphis and San Diego. The San Diego Zoo has had three successful cub births, including one a month after Tai Shan.
The media is the latest group to get an advance look. Zoo donors and assorted VIPs, including actress Nicole Kidman, have received special visits with Tai Shan. About 9,000 members of Friends of the National Zoo, the zoo's support organization, signed up for tickets to see the cub. Another 18,000 FONZ members on a waiting list will have a fresh chance at tickets today via the zoo's Web site.
Tai Shan, who is still nursing, is getting more "assertive" with his mother and the humans who tend to him, according to keepers. Mei Xiang no longer can pick him up by the scruff of his neck and, instead, uses her size to push him where she wants him to go. In a few weeks, he will venture outside, and zoo workers have begun "cub-proofing" the yard by filling in holes he might fall into and removing some electrified wires from trees he might climb.
His outdoor adventures can only be imagined.
"That's the fun part of working with animals," said keeper Nicole Meese. "There really is no routine day."
Staff writer D'Vera Cohn contributed to this report.
For links to webcams of the panda, the latest video and more information, go to www.washingtonpost.com/metro.