AT DUJIANGYAN PANDA BASE, CHINA — At a villa perched on a lush hillside here, the giant panda that sent Washingtonians into a frenzy spends his days on the other side of fame.
A decade ago, Tai Shan became the first panda born at the Smithsonian National Zoo to survive past birth. His arrival ushered in an era of all things panda. Nicknamed “Butterstick” because of his tiny birth size, Tai Shan was a celebrity in a city full of boldface names, working the camera, winning fans.
Then, he was gone.
His owner, the Chinese government, wanted Tai Shan on its soil. So in February 2010, the tearful goodbyes came, and the panda left on a FedEx plane.
Come Saturday, Washington’s newest panda cub will take center stage. Tai Shan’s baby brother, Bei Bei, will make his public debut. Nearly 5 months old, he is a furry ball of cuteness, difficult for even the hardest heart to resist. But, as the District’s panda fanatics will tell you, before there was Bei Bei, there was his oldest sibling.
Now 10, Tai Shan is a hulking grown man by panda standards, but he’s still up to his boyish antics.
“Yes, I’m talking about you!” Liu Yi, the panda’s handler, said as Tai Shan mugged for the camera from behind metal bars.
He has a temper, Liu said. And at times he can be a little timid. That’s when Liu will step in with a pat on the paw and a quick scratch behind an ear.
“Tai Shan, don’t be afraid,” she said.
Life at this zoolike research base in southwest China has its challenges for Tai Shan. He loves apples, but he’s not allowed to have too many. They’re bad for panda teeth.
At Dujiangyan, Tai Shan is one of 30 or so pandas. His “villa,” or enclosure, is like that of every other panda on the grounds — no special treatment.
To catch a glimpse of Tai Shan padding around outside requires a trek through underbrush to a stone wall overlooking his yard. Visitors will probably find the 242-pound bear eating, and eating, and eating bamboo, 88 pounds of it a day. It’s a low-energy diet delivered in bundles.
He still has fans, however.
Liesl Okuda came to China from Los Angeles to celebrate Tai Shan’s birthday. She has been to every one.
“It’s just sort of a challenge, you know,” she said. “I was nine for nine, and let’s see if we can go 10 for 10.”
There were balloons and signs with Tai Shan’s picture — and a carrot ice cake.
“He poses for photos. He gives you great photo ops,” Okuda said. She offered a 4-by-4 print that’s a montage of past birthdays. It’s his photogenic, people-pleasing personality, she said, that keeps her coming back.
Panda officials say it may be time for Tai Shan to enter the breeding pool. He is on the older side for breeding, but some male pandas are late bloomers in this department, said Zhang Hemin, director of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda. It runs the Dujiangyan base and others in China.
“He should be sexually matured,” Zhang said as Tai Shan picked apart his birthday cake in the background.
And Tai Shan has already shown some interest. A while back he seemed to take a liking to a panda nearby, Susan. But Liu had to break the news to him that she was just a little too young.
Liu Liu contributed to this report.