“It’s Bao Bao! It’s Bao Bao!” the children cried, as they peered over an enclosure at the National Zoo’s Giant Panda Exhibit.
“They’re cute, they’re adorable,” beamed Shamaila Bashir, who flew in from London to see the nearly four-year-old panda before her move to China. “You can’t go wrong, I love pandas,”
Bao Bao, clearly unfazed by all the attention, contentedly munched on some bamboo, then took a seat on a stone wall, turning her back to her adoring fans.
“We're super-excited, although we're sad to see her leave,” says Nicki Recchio, after seeing Bao Bao for the first, and last time, with her ten-month-old daughter Avielle. “You know, she's going to create more pandas, so I'm happy for that.”
It’s a long goodbye for panda-fans, as the National Zoo hosts a series of special events before Bao Bao’s departure next Tuesday, part of a long-standing agreement with the Chinese government.
Zoo visitors can watch her enjoy ice cream, dumpling treats, and even an appearance on Facebook live.
For those who’ve cared for the panda since her birth at the zoo in August 2013, it will be a tough farewell.
“We are all attached to her and we love her,” says Laurie Thompson, an assistant curator for the Giant Panda exhibit. “It’s time for her to kind of move on in the world and go find her own mate and have her own babies.”
“It’s sort of like sending your kids off to college,” says Michael Brown-Palsgrove, the curator of Giant Pandas. “So you’re excited for them to make that next step and see what they can do with their lives.”
How do pandas affect zoo visitation?
National Zoo officials say the facility receives about two and a half million visitors a year. Two million of them come specifically to see the panda exhibit.
“Just sad to see her go,” says ten year old Miles Krenc, of Woodbridge.
The youngster turned around just in time to see Bao Bao walking just feet from him, behind a glass enclosure.
What does he really like about pandas?
“Their chubbiness,” he said softly. “They’re so cute.”
But Zoo officials say panda-fans shouldn’t fret about not seeing their favorite animals.
Giant Panda Bei Bei is to be weaned from his mother in the next few months.
The hope is that Mei Xiang, Bei Bei’s and Bao Bao’s mother, will start breeding again before the end of the year.
Curators say this ‘Panda diplomacy’ between China and the U.S. is a success for Bao Bao and others.
“This is a true partnership, a conservation partnership,” Brown-Palsgrove says. “To be able to return her to China to the breeding centers, give her hopefully the opportunity to produce offspring of her own, is a very important addition.”
Zoo visitors will have a chance to get a last glimpse of Bao Bao Monday afternoon, starting at 1:30.
She will be heading out, on her journey to China, the very next day.
“I guess I’m practical about it,” Recchio smiles. “I mean I'm sure it'll be sad that she's been here her whole life so it'll be unfamiliar territory, but it'll be okay.”
“It's bittersweet,” Thompson adds. “We definitely think it's time and she's ready.”