One of Washington D.C.’s best known figures walked past a line of gaga photographers, creating a volley of flashes and a chorus of pleas to turn his head around just so. Decked in black and white, he was seemingly oblivious to his fans before he plopped down on his dingy white bottom on the concrete floor and munched on a 10-foot-long stalk of bamboo.
This is Tai Shan, a 200-pound giant panda at the National Zoo. On Friday officials there announced that next year the animal will move to whereabouts unknown in China where he’ll spend the rest of his days as a stud.
For the devotees who followed him since birth, there were tears of joy and sadness.
He’s leaving behind a woman who confided in him as her father died, a man who has snapped thousands of pictures of him and a husband and wife who met through the panda. They are just a few of the people devoted to Tai Shan, the youngest of pandas at the zoo and the first born there to survive infancy. His four years of life have been exhaustively documented and he’s been used as a marketing tool for the zoo itself. And he’s also been the salve for hurting hearts.
“He’s done an awful lot for a lot of people. He has a wonderful personality,” said Mara Strock, a weekly visitor to the zoo’s panda exhibit.
Strock said she became attached to the giant panda while her father was dying. In his last days the two of them would go to the zoo together and spend moments with Tai Shan, then a newborn. She, a middle age woman, her father, an aged man, and the infant panda all bonded, she said.
Since then she’s spent nearly every weekend at the panda exhibit, watching Tai Shan, taking photos and talking with other regulars. Whenever the animal would move, she would jockey for position while accommodating the walking casts on both of her feet, the two cameras with long telescopic lenses clinking together. When Tai Shan poked his black nose outside his enclosure Saturday morning, Strock got on her motorized wheelchair, waterproofed with plastic bags, and followed him into a nasty mix of cold, snow and slush, bringing a group of other amateur photographers and fans with her.
For Strock and others, Tai Shan’s upcoming departure sometime brings mixed emotions. They have watched him since his birth in July 2005, when he was a blind cub the size of a a sick of butter as he turned into a 200 pound bear he is today. But they also said it’s good to know that when he’s in China he’ll be a part of a breeding problem, helping to bolster the numbers of one of the most endangered species on the planet.
His fame was almost guaranteed, said Craig Salvas, a fan who said he has taken around 200,000 pictures of the animal. The panda has continuous, worldwide monitoring via a webcam positioned in his enclosure, he has fan pages, Animal Planet has featured him in several documentaries and the Web means that anyone with any interest in Tai Shan can peer into his den and gawk at the bear.
When he’s not being shadowed by a dozen devotees armed with cameras, his image is being beamed to a wall of video screens, monitored by a zookeeper in a glass enclosure of her own — it’s more like a station for a mall security guard than a scientist.
Additionally, Tai Shan has at least four Facebook pages to his name and a Google search gives him more hits than both Pooh and Yogi bear.
“All that added together allowed him to develop a status different from all the other bears in the country,” said Salvas, who recites Tai Shan’s family tree like others do the Royal Family.
But he said he’s not entirely sure why such exposure, possibly the most a living creature has ever received, has also created such adoration. Perhaps it’s just because the species is evasive, rare, finicky and cute, Salvas said.
“He has a value that’s intrinsic, that goes beyond words or the ability to put into dollars,” he said.
The popularity of giant pandas has kept Frances Nguyen busy as the founder of Pandas Unlimited, a fan club and advocacy organization for the animals. She said there’s around 2,700 members that share stories and photos about pandas, as well as raise money to protect the species and its native habitat in China’s Sichuan Province.
“It’s not all just cute and fun,” Nguyen said.
Pandas Unlimited has also created spin-off relationships, including one between Nguyen and Foo Cheung, a man she would marry after meeting through the club. The topping to their wedding cake featured the creature that brought them together, she said.
“He has this angel-like light on him,” Nguyen said, referring to Tai Shan.
According to the zoo’s Web site, the logistics behind the panda’s return to China are not yet final. It will occur sometime in 2010 and he will go in a crate, possibly the one his parents rode in when they were transported to Dulles International Airport in a FedEx cargo plane. He’ll have snacks along the way and be accompanied by a handler and a veterinarian. Exactly where he’ll go, or what type of facility he’ll live in is uncertain; it could be a zoo or it could be a wildlife sanctuary.
His looming departure isn’t new news. When Tai Shan’s parents arrived at the zoo from China nine years ago Sunday, the deal between China and United States stated that all pandas born in the United States were Chinese property and would eventually be relocated to the land of this ancestors. Even so, his admirers are sad to part with an animal whose life they have meticulously documented, turned into an international celebrity and become emotionally dependent upon.
“The animals probably adjust better than we do,” Nguyen said.
Whenever it finally happens, Tai Shan’s goodbye will be tough, said Chris Kohl, one of the volunteers at the zoo’s panda exhibit. Besides the regular visitors, everyone who earns a living and volunteers around the panda has become attached to him and have their mementos. For one, Kohl keeps a pinecone-sized pellet of rough fiber, shellacked and enclosed in a clear plastic bag labeled “Giant Panda Poop” in her pocket.
But the time is right for Tai Shan move. In panda years, he’s an adolescent. He needs to leave the den, Kohl said.
“I was thinking a few weeks ago, thinking about him and about his future. He really should move on, go on and learn how to be an adult panda, maybe meet a girl,” she said.