As the sun rose on Wednesday morning, the zoo was already busy with preparations. The staff loaded bamboo stacks into a large FedEx truck for the pandas to happily shake on the way to the airport. A growing media scrum formed to describe their historic departure. A stage was set up for speeches by zoo officials and Chinese government dignitaries to mark the occasion.
Traveling to China with the pandas via the zoo, Larry Thompson and Mariel Lally made their own last-minute preparations, taking a roller suitcase and large duffel bag to the zoo.
The mother bear, Mei Xiang, was the first to be taken out of the enclosure, carried in a crate by forklift to a waiting truck. Zoo workers walked solemnly near the basket. A keeper, Nicole McCorkle, can be seen reassuring Mei Xiang with her hand in the box through a small window, her face assessing the situation.
Adult male Tian Tian followed. McCorkle wiped away tears from the loading trucks. Their little Xiao Gui Ji was the last to go.
Zoo director Brandi Smith sighed as she addressed the media in brief remarks. “Everybody keeps asking me how I’m feeling,” he said. “It’s been a rough morning.”
But he said the zoo is proud of its panda conservation efforts and hopes to one day have giant pandas back. “The future is bright for giant pandas.”
After the pandas left, the zoo was closed until 10 am on Wednesday.
This is the fourth time members of the zoo’s giant panda family have left for China. But before this trip, there were always giant pandas who stayed behind when others left.
Now their compound at the zoo in northwest Washington is empty, and Pandamania’s happy decades are over, at least for now.
Bears have become symbols of Washington, along with the White House and the Capitol.
Their images appeared on buses, metro cards, sneakers, shirts, slippers, pajamas, onesies, mugs, water bottles, totes, scarves, scrunchies and hats. They had legions of ardent followers.
In 2001, Composer Julius B. Williams wrote an orchestral piece for them, “March of the Giant Pandas.”
“We knew this day would come,” MacCorkle said in a recent interview. “It’s going to take some time for us, but life at the zoo will go on. It’s going to be a void that we all feel, and I think all of Washington is going to feel.”
China owns and leases all the giant pandas in US zoos. The National Zoo’s current lease expires on December 7.
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian were born in China. As part of the lease agreement, Dec. They arrived at the zoo as juveniles on 6, 2000. Xiao Qi Ji was born on August 21, 2020 at the zoo.
Employees at the Smithsonian facility have been preparing to leave for months. Two keepers and a veterinarian travel with about 220 pounds of bamboo for panda snacks.
Zoo officials said the animals had become accustomed to the traveling boxes. And the keepers didn’t expect the pandas to suffer during the flight.
Zoo staff, however, expressed grief over the loss. Many keepers have cared for giant pandas for years.
Thompson, the zoo’s longest-serving giant panda keeper, was with Mei Xiang and Tian Tian when they arrived 23 years ago. She was scheduled to go on a trip to make the trip easier. “We’re mostly there to keep them happy,” he said.
“It’s definitely a difficult time,” Bob Lee, the zoo’s director of animal care sciences, said last month. “These animals are like family to us and everyone who comes here.”
“I can’t allow myself to think about how I’ll feel when these animals are gone — Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who I’ve known for 15 years, and their cubs,” zoo director Smith, a former giant panda keeper, said last month. “It’s the end of an era for us.”
The zoo’s giant panda story began in February 1972, when President Richard M. Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon made a historic Cold War visit to Communist China.
At a party in Beijing, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai promised Mrs. Nixon that she would give America some giant pandas as a friendly gesture.
Later that year, giant pandas Ling-Ling, a female, and Hsing-Hsing, a male, both about 18 months old, arrived at the zoo.
Ling-Ling died suddenly in 1992, and the ill Hsing-Hsing was euthanized in November 1999.
The zoo was without giant pandas until December 2000 – a gap of one year.
Besides Xiao Qi Ji, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian gave birth to three cubs.
Tai Shan, a male, was born in 2005 and sent to China in 2010. A female named Bao Bao was born in 2013 and sent to China in 2017. Bei Bei, a male, was born in 2015 and sent to China in 2019. .
It’s unclear when, or if, giant pandas will be available again at the zoo. The zoo in San Diego sent its giant pandas to China four years ago. They are not changed.
Smith, the director of the National Zoo, said last month that the zoo is interested in breeding more giant pandas and wants the program to continue for another 50 years, even though there have been no official discussions with China.
“The National Zoo is unique” in the giant panda research it has done and the relationships it has built with scientists in China, he said. “No other zoo in the world has the kind of program we have.”
He said the zoo has “hope” that the pandas will one day return, which is reflected in the zoo’s improvement of its panda habitat. “Because we are optimistic, there will be pandas here in the future,” he said.