As the sun rose Wednesday morning, the zoo was already busy with preparations. Employees loaded stacks of bamboo into a large FedEx truck so the pandas could happily snack on their way to the airport. A growing media scrum formed to chronicle their historic departure. And a podium was set up for speeches by zoo officials and Chinese government dignitaries to mark the occasion.
Zookeepers Laurie Thompson and Mariel Lally – who will travel with the pandas to China – made their own last-minute preparations, lugging a rolling suitcase and a large duffel bag around the zoo.
The mother bear, Mei Xiang, was the first to emerge from the enclosure, transported in a crate by a forklift to the waiting truck. The zoo staff walked solemnly next to the crate. A guard, Nicole MacCorkle, kept her hand near a small window on the register as if to reassure Mei Xiang, whose face could be seen assessing the situation.
The adult male, Tian Tian, went next. MacCorkle wiped away tears as she left the loading trucks. Their little one, Xiao Qi Ji, was the last to leave.
Zoo director Brandie Smith sighed as she addressed the media in brief remarks. “Everyone asks me how I feel,” she said. “It’s a tough morning.”
But the zoo is proud of its panda conservation efforts, she said, and hopes to one day have giant pandas again. “The future is bright for giant pandas. »
The zoo was closed Wednesday morning until 10 a.m., after the pandas left.
This is the fourth departure of members of the zoo’s giant panda family to China. But before this trip, there have always been giant pandas who stayed when the others left.
Today, their complex at the northwest Washington zoo is empty and the happy decades of pandamania are over, at least for now.
Bears had become symbols of Washington, alongside the White House and the Capitol.
Their images have appeared on buses, subway cards, sneakers, shirts, slippers, pajamas, onesies, mugs, water bottles, tote bags, scarves, scrunchies and hats . They had legions of passionate supporters.
In 2001, composer Julius P. Williams wrote an orchestral piece for them, “The March of the Giant Pandas.”
“We knew this day would come,” MacCorkle said in a recent interview. “It will take us some time, but life will continue here at the zoo. It will be a void that we will all feel, and I think all of Washington will feel it.”
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. They arrived at the zoo when they were young, on December 6, 2000, under a rental agreement. Xiao Qi Ji was born at the zoo on August 21, 2020.
Smithsonian staff have been preparing for the departure for months. Two keepers and a veterinarian also make the trip, as well as approximately 220 pounds of bamboo for panda snacks.
The animals were acclimated to the travel cages, zoo officials said. And keepers don’t expect the pandas to be in distress during the flight.
Zoo staff members, however, expressed their grief over the loss. Several keepers have taken care of giant pandas for many years.
Thompson, the zoo’s longest-serving giant panda keeper, was there when Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived 23 years ago. She is expected to accompany the trip to make the trip easier. “We are mainly here to make them happy,” she 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 to the people who come here.”
“I almost can’t think about how I will feel when these animals are gone – Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, whom I have known for 15 years, and their cubs,” said zoo director Smith, a former keeper giant pandas. said last month. “It’s the end of an era for us.”
The story of the zoo’s giant panda began in February 1972, when President Richard M. Nixon and first lady Pat Nixon made a historic event. Cold War Tour of Communist China.
At a banquet in Beijing, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai promised Mrs. Nixon that China would give giant pandas to the United States 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 ailing Hsing-Hsing was euthanized in November 1999.
The zoo then remained without giant pandas until December 2000, an interval of just over a year.
Besides Xiao Qi Ji, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian gave birth to three surviving cubs.
A male, Tai Shan, was born in 2005 and sent to China in 2010. A female, Bao Bao, was born in 2013 and sent to China in 2017. A male, Bei Bei, was born in 2015 and sent to China in 2019 . .
It is it is not known when or if the zoo will welcome giant pandas again. The San Diego Zoo sent its giant pandas to China four years ago. They have not been replaced.
Smith, the National Zoo director, said last month that although the zoo is interested in welcoming more giant pandas and wants its program to continue for another 50 years, no official discussions with China have taken place.
“The National Zoo is unique” in the research it has done on giant pandas and the relationships it has built with Chinese scientists, she said. “No other zoo in the world has the kind of program we have.”
She said there was “optimism” at the zoo that the pandas would one day return, which is evident in the improvements the zoo is making to its panda habitat. “Because we hope,” she said, “that we will have pandas here in the future.”