A First Birthday Party for Tia Shan
DC: 00 a.m. NPR's Allison Keyes was there.
ALLISON KEYES: 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?
PHOENIX DIGGS: Yes.
DIGGS: Yes. Because the pandas are cute and cuddly.
KEYES: Her four-year-old sister Nico has a better reason.
NICO DIGGS: 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.
MIKE SILVETTI: 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.
SUZAN MURRAY: 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, Amnesty4TaiShan.com, aimed at keeping him here.
LUCINDA LEWIS: 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.
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: But the cost isn't what brought people like Linda Barksdale(ph) barreling down I-95 to stand in the zoo looking exasperated.
LINDA BARKSDALE: I drove five hours to see a panda bear, okay?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KEYES: And was it cute?
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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