By the time the last people in line were allowed into the National Zoo's Panda House yesterday for Tai Shan's public debut, the baby bear was in a back den, where a partial furry view could be had by leaning far forward, almost to the point of tipping over.
"I see his head," one woman in front told her small child. "Pick me up!" a girl in a pink down jacket demanded of her mother. A man held his camera high, pointed to the viewfinder and said to his boy, "There he is!"
"Is he doing anything, Maya?" a man called out from the last row. "Is he doing anything?"
It seemed this group would not be fortunate, unlike others that happily watched the cub frolic, gambol and slide during the first day the public was let in to see the 5-month-old Tai Shan. Some individual visitors hit the jackpot, too -- a class of third-graders on a field trip from Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Falls Church, a family of four from Hawaii and a number of others who showed up with no expectation of getting in were granted admittance to the Panda House. There were no monster lines. By noon, 10 tickets were still left for takers willing to show up in the 30-degree chill.
Jean Simmonds tumbled out of bed in Crystal City and took Metro to the zoo, even though she had no guarantee she'd get anywhere near the cub. Although all 600 advance timed-entry tickets for yesterday had been grabbed up on the zoo's Web site, she knew that a few dozen more would be given out to same-day visitors, starting at 8 each morning, at a booth across from the Panda House. By 9:30, she had scored one for herself and a friend.
Simmonds phoned her clients at the Pentagon City hair salon where she works and told them she couldn't do their highlights yesterday. "If you get a chance to do something historical," she said, "it's worth it."
The zoo's tickets allow visitors to spend about 10 minutes inside the Panda House for free. But such is the demand to see Tai Shan -- whose species is one of the world's rarest, with only 160 in zoos and perhaps 10 times that number in the wild -- that a resale market has developed on outlets including eBay. Tai Shan's parents are on a 10-year loan from China, and he is to go there after his second birthday.
Four sets of tickets have sold this week on the online auction site for $103.49 to $210.33. Perhaps to counter criticism, some sellers promised to donate profits to the zoo, but at least one dropped out of the ticket-selling business after complaining of "all the ignorant morons who sent me e-mails saying I should be ashamed or calling me names."
Zoo officials warned that they will inspect identification of the main ticket-holder to curb resale and fraud, but they did not appear to check everybody yesterday. They also tried to lower expectations of panda visitors, stating that a sighting is not guaranteed. The baby panda, after all, is an animal, with unpredictable behavior.
When the Thomas Jefferson third-graders got in to see him at 10:30, Tai Shan was in the back den with his mother, Mei Xiang. The cub's father, Tian Tian, who has not met his offspring and probably never will, was eating bamboo outdoors. The students had gone to the zoo to visit the other animals and were thrilled just to get inside the Panda House.
"You could do this," said Beth Cashin, demonstrating how she pitched forward, "and see him."
"He was rolling around," Caroline Jarrard said.
"And his mother was cleaning him," added Beth.
"He was really cute," Katherine Goodwin said, sighing.
When the first group of timed ticket-holders got in at 11, "he was sleeping," said Staci Albisu of Fairfax Station, who went with her husband, daughter and daughter's friend. "We saw a couple of little rolls."
"Every time there was hope of him moving," said Kirstin Corbett, 24, who also was in that first group, "everyone would start screaming."
So it was until after noon, when Mei Xiang went outdoors. Then the keepers began carrying the cub from the den to the big public room where everyone could get a good look. They do not go near him when mother is there, because she could be dangerous.
As keeper Laurie Perry held the wriggling cub, Tai Shan appeared to give her a peck on the cheek. Cameras went up, flashes flared, parents pushed forward with children on their shoulders. ("I'm like, kiss me again!" Perry said later.)
She put the toddler panda down. Tai Shan played, sniffed the air, sucked his paw briefly and appeared to pay no notice to the people watching him from the other side of the glass. Ten minutes sped by in an instant.
The 12:20 group rushed in. "Ooooooooo," someone said.
"If you guys could be cooperative with each other -- big guys, let smaller guys see," called out Mo Rouse, the crowd wrangler, who is the zoo's assistant director for guest services.
Tai Shan crawled back to his den, as people applauded, and stayed there for the 12:30 group. Perry brought him out again at 12:40 -- "Go ahead," one mother told her two young children. "Push your way to the front" -- and the crowd moved like an undulating snake from right to left, following the cub as he made his way out of sight. He remained so when the last group of the day walked in at 12:50.
Then the cub came into view, in the arms of associate curator Lisa Stevens.
"Oh my God. . . ."
"Thank you so much," a woman with a toddler on her shoulder told a security guard as she headed out. "We got to see him crawl."