Tai Shan, National Zoo’s Panda Cub at 1 year old

Tai Shan, National Zoo’s Panda Cub at 1 year old
wedding gifts for him
Image by dbking
Tai Shan to leave Washington, headed back to China, Dec 2009

July 2006 Scavenger Hunt
"most exotic animal for your location"

Happy FIRST Birthday Tai Shan, Born July 9, 2005

Tai Shan Holds Zoo’s Hopes, Public’s Heart
Staff Birthday Wish: Longer Stay for Cub, 1

By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 9, 2006

Tai Shan and his mother were playfully wrestling this summer when she accidentally knocked him off the top of an indoor rock. The National Zoo’s prized panda cub tumbled about five feet and let out a loud squeal when he hit the floor.

The cub was more scared than hurt. But about as fast as mom Mei Xiang could rush to his side, the animal park was bombarded with calls and e-mails from worried panda fans who had witnessed the mishap on the zoo’s webcam.

No doubt about it: Tai Shan is one of the most watched celebrities in Washington. He draws crowds and special guests, including first lady Laura Bush and the Queen of Bhutan. He has a large following that monitors his antics on the zoo’s Web site, generating 21 million hits. Zoo staff and volunteers spend hours each day charting his development and behavior. This month, he and his mother share the cover of National Geographic magazine.

Today, as he turns 1 year old, zoo officials will lead the public in toasting Tai Shan with a four-hour birthday celebration. He’ll get a fruitsicle instead of a cake.

The milestone also marks a halfway point: An agreement with China calls for sending the cub there when he turns 2 for future breeding. There is hope within zoo circles of keeping Tai Shan in Washington a bit longer, because his services as a breeding partner probably won’t be needed until he is 5 or 6.

Letters and e-mails arrive at the zoo daily from around the world, describing how the panda has brightened lives. The back room of the Panda House showcases an impressive inventory of gifts and mail for the cub and keepers — everything from cards and photos to wedding invitations and elaborately knitted mufflers with the cub’s name.

After decades of breeding disappointments, during which the zoo’s previous panda pair failed to produce a surviving cub, animal lovers have marveled to see Tai Shan grow from a helpless, hairless creature no bigger than a stick of butter into a 56-pound furry symbol of scientific perseverance.

"It’s been wonderful," said Lisa Stevens, the zoo’s panda curator. "You try for something for so long, and then it finally happens. It’s a terrific reward for the team that has worked on this all these years."

The team, in this case, is a dedicated group of zoo scientists, keepers and volunteers. They collected and analyzed panda data from Mei Xiang and her mate, Tian Tian, and their predecessors, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing. They studied the intimate details of bear biology and worked to maximize the notoriously narrow window of opportunity — about three days a year — for breeding this endangered species.

These efforts paid off March 11, 2005, although it would be four months before the zoo would know it. That winter morning, with the pandas failing to mate naturally and hormone tests of Mei Xiang’s urine indicating peak fertility, she was anesthetized. Reproductive scientist JoGayle Howard used a tiny laparoscope with a light to perform artificial insemination.

That single, scientifically timed procedure was in contrast to practices in China, native habitat to about 1,600 giant pandas in the wild and fewer than 180 in captivity. The Chinese do artificial insemination on three consecutive days, which requires anesthetizing both the female and the male each time, putting the animals at greater risk.

What the National Zoo accomplished in one try was hailed as a breakthrough.

"Now that we’ve got a cub on the ground, the Chinese realize that we know what we’re talking about," Howard said.

Over the past year, zoo scientists have visited China to share breeding information and demonstrate their work, and three Chinese veterinarians have come to the zoo to study the procedure and other innovations in panda management, including improved nutrition. The zoo’s scientists are continuing their research into panda procreation and hope to find a way to know for sure when a giant panda is pregnant. With Mei Xiang, it was a guessing game until she gave birth.

The zoo plans to breed Mei Xiang again in the spring and will resort to artificial means if necessary, perhaps experimenting with thawing frozen sperm from Tian Tian or a male panda at the San Diego Zoo, a technique that would make it easier to breed genetically diverse offspring without moving the animals to different zoos.

"We still have hopes that our male will get the job done, but it’s nice to have options," Howard said.

Tian Tian, who has been separated from Mei Xiang since the cub’s birth, has been amazingly self-sufficient, keepers say. He will rejoin his mate during the breeding season, probably in March, but will not be allowed near Tai Shan as a precaution.

Mei Xiang has been "a fabulous mother" to Tai Shan, according to Howard and the zoo’s chief veterinarian, Suzan Murray. They said they know of plenty of frightened, first-time panda moms that have walked away when cubs were born.

"She did it perfectly," Howard said. "The panda cam showed that she was pure hands-on 24/7, and she continued to be attentive" as he grew.

The healthy cub, who will be completely weaned by spring, has developed somewhat more quickly than the three cubs born in San Diego, picking up weight faster and scent-marking earlier.

He bounds into his yard about 7 a.m. these days, a treat for early visitors. He plays a bit, sometimes with his mom, then climbs a favorite tree for a mid-morning nap. He comes down periodically and usually goes inside at night when called.

Except when he doesn’t.

Several months ago, Tai Shan, whose name means "peaceful mountain," stubbornly remained in a tree and barked at zoo director John Berry, who tried to coax him down for a special evening appearance before the Smithsonian Institution regents. And last month, the cub braved a rainstorm, refusing to come inside until 11 p.m.

Curator Stevens, who has been chewed out by panda fans for jokingly calling him a "little monster" in her Web site reports, said it has been a joy to watch the cub’s "amazing metamorphosis."

The Fujifilm Giant Panda Habitat has drawn an estimated 1.2 million visits since Tai Shan’s December debut, with adoring crowds who snapped up free online tickets.

But if giant pandas are crowd pleasers, they do not ensure zoo profits. The average annual cost for a couple with a cub is about .2 million, according to a study done by Zoo Atlanta, one of four animal parks in the United States with pandas. The amount includes a million-a-year fee to exhibit a male and female panda and a one-time charge of 0,000 if a cub is born, funds that go toward panda conservation in China. Zoos, which are hoping to negotiate cheaper loan agreements with China, incur additional costs in panda care, exhibit upkeep and staff research and training.

The National Zoo does not charge admission. But Tai Shan’s popularity has helped boost revenue from parking, refreshments and souvenirs.

Overall merchandising sales at the zoo have gone up dramatically, from .7 million in the first half of 2005, before the cub was born, to .3 million in the first half of this year, according to the zoo. Tai Shan "products" — including pictures, postcards and plushes — account for about 23 percent of that total.

David Wildt, who heads the zoo’s Department of Reproductive Sciences, heralds the scientific advances that brought Tai Shan into the world. He recently returned from China, reporting that zoo funds earmarked for panda conservation are being well spent.

The monies have helped pay for training and equipment in new biomedical and animal reproductive technologies at panda reserves. The funds also have supported research and built shelters for the Chinese teams that spend days in snow-covered mountains monitoring pandas in the wild. Panda births in China, particularly of male cubs, have recently increased, boosting the zoo’s hopes that it can keep Tai Shan beyond his second birthday.

The zoo’s new giant panda exhibit opens in September. It will double the outdoor space for a panda family, with plenty of room for Tai Shan — and, hopefully, a sibling.

"We want to have him remain with us for awhile, until he is needed," Wildt said. "He’s the living offspring of our work and an incredible ambassador for saving pandas in China."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company
Tai Shan’s Fans Flock to the Zoo For a Panda-Size Birthday Bash

By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 10, 2006

The birthday boy did not seem too impressed by all the attention, but by now, Tai Shan is used to the cameras, the faces, the "oohs" and "ahs." At his first birthday party yesterday, the celebrity panda cub was more interested in his presents — a play pool filled with ice water and a fruitsicle shaped like a giant cake — than in the thousands of people who came to tell him how cute he is and how much he has meant to the National Zoo.

"He’s a rock star," said Chevy Chase lawyer Roger Goldman after the cub’s big photo op, wrestling his mother for part of the popsicle. "He’s like Mick Jagger or somebody."

It was a day of cute — but who thought it wouldn’t be? Brownie Troop 3907 from Gaithersburg sang "Happy Birthday" twice. A FedEx van pulled up with "a special delivery" — a birthday cake for the people guests. Heads young and old sported pointy green Tai Shan party hats, and many a hand clutched a stuffed version of you-know-who, available for .99 (small) or .99 (large) in one of the souvenir huts.

As early as 7 a.m., fans began amassing outside the zoo for the 10 a.m. opening of the Panda House. Juli Brown, 31, traveled farther than most, flying in from her home in Greeneville, Tenn., on Saturday "just to see the baby" she’s been watching from afar on the zoo’s webcam, which has had 21 million hits since his birth. She has seen him scramble up trees, munch on bamboo, play in snow for the first time and grow — and grow.

From the moment he was born, Tai Shan has commanded the spotlight. Giant pandas, which are endangered, are difficult to breed, and the Zoo’s three decades of struggling to produce a healthy cub had resulted in many disappointments. A previous pair of adult pandas had produced five cubs during the 1980s, but none lived more than few days. When Tai Shan was born on July 9, 2005, weighing four ounces, he was initially dubbed "Butterstick," since he was only the size of a stick of butter. Things have changed.

"Now, he’s Butterball," said Mary Schultz of Dallastown, Pa., about the roly-poly cub who now weighs a robust 56 pounds.

Undoubtedly there are a few people out there who may be a little tired of the ongoing chronicles of Tai Shan, who believe the cub’s adorability factor has been milked. But the Schultzes and others who attended yesterday’s event are not those people. Danny Schultz was so inspired by repeated visits and much reading about pandas that he signed up a while back as a zoo volunteer. Now, he drives the four-hour round-trip each Thursday to enlighten others about Tai Shan’s activities, likes and dislikes.

"I can’t believe he’s a year old," Schultz said, echoing the thoughts of many at the party. "It’s gone by so fast."

For his birthday appearance, Tai Shan performed like the little star he is, emerging with his mother, Mei Xiang, and ignoring all the staring people. With Mom, he meandered down the path toward his new play pool, ball and his first fruitsicle — a frozen treat made of bamboo leaves, carrots, pears, beets and apples.

"Come on, Tai," zoo director John Berry cooed softly from the viewing area, as the cub moved toward the small, bright-blue pool. "He has delivered every step of the way since he was born."

And he delivered again yesterday, delighting his fans by dipping a paw into the pool, then turning toward the fruitsicle, as if noticing it for the first time. For a moment, he seemed torn, looking back and forth from the pool to the treat, as if deliberating what to do next. But the popsicle eventually won, and Tai Shan embraced it in a big panda hug that sent camera crews scurrying to catch the perfect party shot.

There was one small cloud in an otherwise happy day. Tai Shan, like his parents, is on loan to the Zoo from China, and, as it stands, plans are to send him there shortly after he turns 2. Yesterday nobody wanted to think about that — or how fast a year can go by.

"I like that panda," said Joshua Perez, 9, of Woodbridge, who is "really into animals" and has visited Tai Shan several times. "I want to be either an actor or a zookeeper."

He and his mother, Joanna, have talked about the cub’s eventual departure. "I guess it’s fair," she said, "but it’s sad to think about. We don’t want him to go."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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