A First Birthday Party for Tia Shan

Crowds packed the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the first birthday of its most famous resident, the panda cub Tia Shan.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

It was, well, a zoo in Washington, DC, today, as people flocked to celebrate the first birthday of giant panda cub Tai Shan. The Smithsonian's National Zoo has been packed with people with panda fever since 6:00 a.m. NPR's Allison Keyes was there.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

This little bear is bigger than the Beatles. There are ooh's and aah's every time little Tai Shan moves. And the people watching the 56-pound tyke clamor around on mom Mei Xiang's back, then tumble off onto the ground, practically vibrated with delight.

Little kids like Nyle(ph), Phoenix(ph) and Nico Diggs(ph) stood excitedly in line, blowing little birthday horns and clutching tiny rubber pandas to their chest. Seven-year-old Phoenix: Do you love the pandas?

Ms. PHOENIX DIGGS (Child): Yes.

KEYES: Why?

Ms. DIGGS: Yes. Because the pandas are cute and cuddly.

KEYES: Her four-year-old sister Nico has a better reason.

Ms. NICO DIGGS: (Child): Because they're babies.

KEYES: Nico, like many in this crowd, has been watching Tai Shan grow on the zoo's panda-cam. The site has drawn about two million visits a month since Tai Shan's birth last year. Mike Silvetti(ph) says his wife Mia was behind quite a few of those hits. They are, he admits, a little scary in their devotion to the pandas.

Mr. MIKE SILVETTI (Zoo Visitor): Especially - we drove down from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, yesterday and stayed overnight so we could get here early. And she has her panda ears on, which she sleeps in half the time.

KEYES: The zoo's chief veterinarian, Suzan Murray, was grinning as broadly as the visitors here. But she says experts are learning a lot about this endangered species. Tai Shan's birth followed years of failed attempts at breeding the bears in captivity, but Dr. Murray says it was worth it.

Dr. SUZAN MURRAY (National Zoo Chief Veterinarian): I've never listened to a baby panda heart before, palpated an abdomen before, or looked in their eyes. So every new milestone is a new, exciting development.

KEYES: Right now, an agreement with China means Tai Shan must be sent there when he turns two for future breeding. Lucinda Lewis(ph) of Washington, DC has actually started a website, AmnestyforTaiShan.com, aimed at keeping him here.

Ms. LUCINDA LEWIS (Founder Panda Website): We're trying to say, send his sperm, not the bear, because due to medical technology, we don't have to deport the bear and put him through that and disrupt his feng shui.

KEYES: But in China, the giant panda's native habitat, there are fewer than 180 in captivity and about 1,600 in the wild. The zoo's Dr. Murray says Tai Shan could help change that.

Dr. MURRAY: If at two year's of age he should go back, he would potentially have the chance to have his offspring released into the wild.

KEYES: Still, zoo officials acknowledge that they'd love to keep the little guy longer and note there will be room. An expanded giant panda habitat opens in September, but it isn't cheap to keep them. A recent study found that a zoo spends an average 3.2 million a year for a giant panda couple with a cub.

But the cost isn't what brought people like Linda Barksdale(ph) barreling down I-95 to stand in the zoo looking exasperated.

Ms. LINDA BARKSDALE (Zoo Visitor): I drove five hours to see a panda bear, okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: And was it cute?

Ms. BARKSDALE: Yeah, he's cute. I must admit, he is cute.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: So the panda-monium continues. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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