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Giant pandas came to the zoo 50 years ago and changed D.C. forever

The National Zoo prepares to celebrate the anniversary of its first giant pandas in 1972

Panda cub Tai Shan at the National Zoo in March 2006. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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The giant panda cub, soon to be named Tai Shan, was a month old. At the National Zoo, his mother, Mei Xiang, was leaving him alone for longer periods of time. And the keepers saw a chance to sneak in, and grab the cub for a quick medical checkup.

No one had laid hands on him since his birth had electrified Washington on July 9, 2005. The zoo had never had a cub survive more than a few days. Now, for the first time, someone would get to pick one up. “I wanted to be that person,” veteran keeper Laurie Thompson recalled.

With Mei Xiang locked outdoors for a moment, Thompson, who had been caring for giant pandas for a decade, entered the compound. “I reached down and picked him up, and he made this little squeal,” she said.

It was unforgettable, she recalled last week. He weighed 1.8 pounds.

As Thompson spoke, the zoo was preparing to celebrate the dawn of its giant panda era on April 16, 1972 — 50 years ago Saturday — and the start of a half-century of Washington-style pandamania.

It has been a joyous affliction.

Millions of people have seen the popular animals. President Richard M. Nixon and others have mused over panda sex. Benefactors have given money. Panda fans have rejoiced at the births of cubs, mourned the deaths and wept over the departures.

Friendships have been made among the faithful. Romances have blossomed. In 2010, a man proposed to his girlfriend in the snow outside the panda compound.

Panda images have adorned, among other things, Washington Metro cards, T-shirts, neckties, kites, pajamas, bedroom slippers, gigantic airliners and pandemic masks.

Photographers have been obsessed. Frances Nguyen, founder of Pandas Unlimited, a photo-sharing website, once said she might take 1,500 panda pictures in a day.

“You don’t know why,” she said. “It’s like magic.”

Anniversary festivities are scheduled Saturday, Sunday and Monday at the zoo, and include a showing Saturday and Sunday of the Smithsonian Channel film “The Miracle Panda” in the zoo’s visitor center auditorium.

The events are free, but reserved passes are required.

Visiting the pandas at the National Zoo? Here’s some expert advice.

The 131-year-old zoo, in Northwest Washington’s Woodley Park neighborhood, is home to three of the beloved animals: Mei Xiang, a 23-year-old female; Tian Tian, a 24-year-old male; and Xiao Qi Ji, a 1-year-old male.

The zoo has had five other giant pandas since 1972.

Two — Ling-Ling, a female; and Hsing-Hsing, a male — are deceased.

Tai Shan; Bao Bao, a female; and Bei Bei, a male — all born in Washington — have been sent to China as part of a lending and breeding program.

China owns and leases all giant pandas in U.S. zoos.

The zoo’s giant panda story began in February 1972, when Nixon and first lady Pat Nixon made their historic Cold War visit to communist China.

Although bitter foes of the United States, the Chinese went out of their way to be gracious hosts to the American delegation.

China had previously used gifts of giant pandas as overtures to countries like the Soviet Union and North Korea.

And at a banquet on Feb. 21, when Pat Nixon remarked on the panda-themed label on a tin of Chinese cigarettes, Premier Zhou Enlai said: “I’ll give you some.”

“Cigarettes?” the first lady asked.

“No,” Zhou said. “Pandas.”

A Chinese cigarette tin launched D.C.’s 50-year love affair with pandas

Eight weeks later, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived before dawn under tight security at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland and were quietly transported to the zoo.

They were both about 18 months old. And when they made their public debut the next weekend, 20,000 people came to see them. “New Pandas Melt Hearts,” one newspaper headline read.

When the pair got older, the zoo tried to breed them. Ling-Ling bore several cubs, including a set of twins. But all were either stillborn or died soon after birth.

Then, in 1992, Ling-Ling died suddenly.

Two years later, Thompson, 51, the zoo’s longest-serving giant panda keeper, started working there, and wound up caring for the famous but aging Hsing-Hsing.

“He was a really interesting animal,” with big, fluffy “Mickey Mouse” ears, she said at the zoo last week.

“He was very charismatic,” she said. “He was older, but he was very sweet. … You just sort of fell in love with the species, and how different and unique they were.”

“And as he started developing some health issues, I got chosen to be one of the core group of keepers that was going to stay and be very panda-focused with him and his illness,” she said.

With kidney issues and arthritis, he declined over about six months, she said.

At one point he wouldn’t take his arthritis medicine. The keepers had discovered that he liked the blueberry muffins from the Starbucks across Connecticut Avenue from the zoo, she said.

So he was given his medicine inside a blueberry muffin, she said.

Finally, his suffering was so apparent that zoo experts realized he should be euthanized.

Over Thanksgiving 1999, Thompson and other keepers were called in to say goodbye. After Hsing-Hsing was anesthetized, they were able to enter the enclosure and touch him.

“I was sad,” she said. “But I think I had done most of the grieving before.”

Hsing-Hsing, the last link to the great 1972 China breakthrough and the zoo’s only remaining giant panda, was euthanized on Nov. 28.

Thompson lamented that he and Ling-Ling never had cubs that survived.

Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were gifts, she noted, unlike subsequent giant pandas, including cubs born here, which are essentially on loan from China. (Cubs born here all go to China after the age of 4.)

Had any of Ling-Ling’s cubs survived, she said, “they would have been ours.”

All three of the zoo’s giant pandas are likely to go China next year: the adults because they are elderly, and the cub, in part, because he will be near breeding age, a zoo spokeswoman said.

The zoo said it has cordial relations with its Chinese counterparts and hopes that China would be amenable to sending more giant pandas.

Indeed, a year after Hsing-Hsing died, China sent the zoo Tian Tian, then 3, and Mei Xiang, then 2, on a 10-year, $10 million lease.

They arrived Dec. 6, 2000, at Dulles International Airport in Virginia and got a police escort into the city. Thompson was present when they arrived at the zoo. She peeked into the travel crate bearing Tian Tian.

“He was just sound asleep,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy is awesome. After all this, he’s sleeping in his crate.’ ” (To this day, she said, he is her favorite.)

“It was superexciting,” she said. “Just to get the chance to learn about younger pandas. … I’d only seen this old panda … at the end of his life. And now I got to work with 2- and 3-year-olds.”

And a few years later it was time to try breeding them.

Starting in 2002, natural breeding and artificial insemination were attempted without success. In 2005, after natural breeding fizzled again, Mei was artificially inseminated with Tian’s sperm on March 11.

For months it was not clear whether Mei was actually pregnant. Giant pandas can exhibit signs of pregnancy even if they are not pregnant.

But at 3:41 a.m. on July 9, squeals were heard from the panda enclosure. A zookeeper shouted over the phone to a superior: “There’s a cub! There’s a cub!”

Thompson was called at home. “Obviously, I jumped out of bed,” she recalled.

Tai Shan had arrived.

“The most exciting thing ever,” she said. “We’ve now had several cubs, and they’re all unique. But that first cub for us, I mean there was no excitement like that.”

“It was the beginning” she said.

A new wave of panda mania was breaking — a happy phenomenon that has ebbed and surged in Washington now for 50 years.