Zoo Fetes Giant Panda Before China Departure

Tai Shan will be FedExed to China on Feb. 4. i i

Four-year-old Tai Shan, aka "Butterstick," is traveling from Washington, D.C., to China on Thursday as part of an agreement between the National Zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association. The panda will be bred in an effort to reintroduce the species into the wild. Mehgan Murphy/National Zoo hide caption

itoggle caption Mehgan Murphy/National Zoo
Tai Shan will be FedExed to China on Feb. 4.

Four-year-old Tai Shan, aka "Butterstick," is traveling from Washington, D.C., to China on Thursday as part of an agreement between the National Zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association. The panda will be bred in an effort to reintroduce the species into the wild.

Mehgan Murphy/National Zoo

The National Zoo's youngest panda, Tai Shan, is going to a new home this week. As part of an agreement between the Washington, D.C., zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association, he'll board a flight Thursday for Sichuan province to join a breeding program designed to increase the endangered giant panda population. It will be a bittersweet day for those who have watched him grow from cub to bear over the past four years.

A plethora of panda-philes, bundled up against freezing temperatures and driving snow, descended on the National Zoo over the weekend for a farewell party for their favorite bear.

Excited children and more than a few adults made cards for Tai Shan, picked up peanut butter and rice panda treats, and put on purple buttons adorned with smiling panda faces.

"I feel like we're losing a neighbor and a friend," Alicia Sokol said.

Sokol said she and her family would come in the mornings and have their coffee while Tai Shan ate his bamboo.

An Emotional Goodbye

"This is my fond farewell to him," said Pamela Phillips, adding that she was afraid to leave the panda habitat for fear she'd miss something.

That wasn't likely, though: Throughout the party, Tai Shan just ate and chilled out.

"I used to come stand in long lines to see him when he was a little butterstick," Phillips said.

Tai Shan earned the nickname "Butterstick" because he was the size of a stick of butter when he was born. Even those who work with him, like biologist Laurie Thompson, get a little misty-eyed remembering when he was little and afraid of bamboo.

"Eventually, he got to the point where he was really excited by it," said Thompson. "So when he was waiting in the little holding area, and we were putting bamboo in his yard, we would drag it past him. And he would run after us, and try and chase us with the bamboo."

This is an emotional time for those who work with Tai Shan. But Thompson said they've learned a lot from the now-185-pound giant panda.

"Once the panda cub is born, we do watches," said Thompson. "Behavior watches 24 hours a day, where we listen to vocalizations and watch for movement and first steps."

Under the zoo's arrangement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, Tai Shan will join the breeding program. Officials hope the program will eventually allow giant pandas to be reintroduced into the wild.

Interim panda and primates curator Erika Bauer said Tai Shan will meet many pandas when he gets to the Wolong Bifengxia panda base in Sichuan. His parents are the only other pandas at the National Zoo.

No longer the size of a stick of butter, Tai Shan now weighs 185 pounds. i i

No longer the size of a stick of butter, Tai Shan was feted Saturday, five days before his departure to China. Mehgan Murphy/National Zoo hide caption

itoggle caption Mehgan Murphy/National Zoo
No longer the size of a stick of butter, Tai Shan now weighs 185 pounds.

No longer the size of a stick of butter, Tai Shan was feted Saturday, five days before his departure to China.

Mehgan Murphy/National Zoo

"It's probably going to be a lot of sensory perception things for him," Bauer said. "He's going to be hearing everybody, seeing everybody, smelling everybody. It's a lot for a bear to take in."

But Bauer said language would not be a problem for Tai Shan. His new keepers will use the same behavioral hand signals the panda was taught at the zoo.

"He doesn't speak Chinese, but he also doesn't speak English, when you think about it that way," Bauer said.

Avid Fans

"I like to watch him," said Lori Malotky. "He gives me some sort of peace inside, I suppose." Malotky flew from Monroe, Mich., for the ninth time to visit the bear she has been watching on panda cam since he was a cub.

"I know we don't own him," she said. "But I wish we could trade him for some eagles or something. I mean, wouldn't China like some eagles or something?"

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