Bye bye, Bao Bao

By Gretel Johnston — A giant panda that captured hearts in Washington and around the world from the day she was born has reached a milestone. Like a child headed off to college, it’s time for the National Zoo’s female panda Bao Bao to leave home. And it’s likely tears will be shed. Bao Bao was born in August 2013 and has enjoyed life in Washington as a celebrity. Her debut in the public eye earned a comment from first lady Michelle Obama, and more than 100,000 people participated in a contest to name her.
The bamboo-munching animal was so popular that shortly after she was born the zoo created a “panda cam” so that people could watch her eat, play and snuggle with her mother online in real time.
About 80 per cent of the 2.5 million people who visit the National Zoo annually visit the giant panda habitat, zoo spokesman Devin Murphy said.
The panda cam has been viewed tens of millions of times since Bao Bao was born, he added. The National Zoo has geared up for her farewell with days of events, most of which will be broadcast on Facebook Live or on the panda cam.
Bao Bao’s name means “precious” or “treasure” in Chinese, but some zookeepers described her as a miracle because her mother, Mei Xiang, had difficulties bearing cubs. She gave birth in 2012, but the cub died six days later. A cub that arrived 26 hours after Bao Bao was stillborn.
Now weighing 85 kg, the adolescent with fluffy black and white fur is being sent to China to breed, the zoo said. Under a programme started during the Nixon administration between the zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association all cubs born at the National Zoo move to China before turning 4 years old. Bao Bao’s elaborate farewell kicked off on Thursday when the Chinese Embassy served farewell dumplings to visitors while Bao Bao was presented with a box of treats that had a dumpling painted on it.
On Saturday she was to receive more goodies starting with a heart-shaped ice cake representing global panda fan love and a treasure box filled with treats.
Events on Sunday are centred on what the zoo called “peach-themed enrichment.” The activities are connected with a traditional Chinese ceremony on a baby’s first birthday.
The Zhuazhou ceremony involves symbolic objects placed in front of a baby, with the one the baby reaches for first foretelling something about his or her future. Peach figures into Bao Bao’s farewell because she reached for a poster with peaches on her first birthday in August 2014.
Monday’s events will kick off with a behind-the-scenes look at how the team is getting Bao Bao ready for her trip. Bao Bao will then be feted with a party, including an ice cake in the shape of a Chinese pagoda. — dpa