Vip Treatment

The National Zoo rolls out the red carpet for the debut of its Very Important Pandas, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang. Until the presidential inauguration at least, they might just be the hotteat couple in town

January 11, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The city's newest stars made their debut at the National Zoo yesterday, two ready-for-prime-time pandas working the public like a pair of Washington professionals. Romping across a grassy lawn right on cue, they submitted to countless photo sessions, soaked up applause and waited to be adored. (It didn't take long.)

The opening of the giant panda exhibition formally introduced the nation to these new celebrities, who, like stage divas, immediately began chewing up the scenery. First came Tian Tian, the 3 1/2 -year-old male, making a beeline for chunks of sweet potato and bamboo shoots he pulled from the ground. Mei Xiang, 2 1/2 , who zoo officials hope one day will become Tian Tian's girlfriend, nibbled sweet grass on the back lawn before sauntering to center stage.

The two pandas, on loan for $10 million from the Chinese government, spent the day stuffing themselves with bamboo leaves, gnawing on carrots and sniffing for orange protein biscuits in their newly renovated outdoor habitat. After their snacking session - so intense they chewed with their eyes closed - it was on to playtime. They nipped at each other and nuzzled, rolled head over heels down a hill and swung around tree limbs like Gene Kelly on a lamppost.

"Help us launch our panda premiere!" declared Lawrence Small, director of the Smithsonian Institution, which oversees the zoo, not long before the first black and white head (Tian Tian) popped over a rock formation. Small gave Mei Xiang (may SHONG, which means "beautiful fragrance") and Tian Tian (tee-YEN tee-YEN, which means "more and more") a new title fit for Washington: "First Couple of the National Zoo."

The pandas, who still understand commands in Chinese better than in English, might have learned at least one new word yesterday. "Cute." From the steady stream of visitors, that's about the only thing that rose above the din.

"They're irresistible," gushed Laura Rice, 21, an American University senior, bearing the frigid wind to watch from the front row. "I hate leaving. I hate to go. We can come down anytime, but it's so hard to drag yourself away."

The pandas cavorted much of the day, taking to the crowds and cameras easily. They already were working their magic on head zookeeper Brenda Morgan. She still misses Hsing-Hsing, who died in 1999, and his late female counterpart, Ling-Ling - but Morgan already sees how healthy and well-adjusted these new pandas are. While Hsing-Hsing could be reclusive and finnicky (he hated the sound of weed-whackers), these two practically mugged for the cameras.

"We're tickled by how playful they are," Morgan said, just before Mei Xiang bit Tian Tian's face. "That's how they play. On their way here from China, they drove three-and-a-half hours in an open truck, heard dogs barking at the airport, went on a hydraulic lift and took off in a noisy cargo plane, and they didn't get upset at all."

The pandas, who arrived in this country last month after a 17-hour flight from Chengdu, China, just finished a month of quarantine in which they acclimated to the rocks, caves and logs around their $1.8 million refurbished digs. The zoo will contribute $1 million a year for 10 years to the China Wildlife Conservation Association in Beijing for the long-term loan of the pandas - paid for not with tax dollars, but through corporate sponsorships and private donations. Those corporate sponsors were boldly in evidence yesterday: At the entrance to the exhibit, a stuffed panda held a Fuji film sign at the gift kiosk. Fuji is a major underwriter, along with Animal Planet and FedEx.

At the opening yesterday, zoo administrators joined Chinese officials in heralding the loan, saying it promises to raise awareness about the endangered species and its natural habitat in the fog-covered forests of mountainous China. About 1,000 giant pandas are in the wild and fewer than 150 in zoos (including just seven in the United States).

At times, the ceremony was a little like a wedding with over-anxious in-laws. "I wish Mei Xiang and Tian Tian will live here very happily and have a baby very soon," said Chen Jianwei, deputy director of the conservation department at the government's State Forestry Administration. Chinese officials also gave the zoo a painting of the snow-capped landscape around the Wolong Reserve where the pandas were raised - in case, they said, the pandas got homesick.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian were born in captivity - itself a feat given the difficulties of panda mating. All five cubs born at the National Zoo died of bacterial infections within a few days of their birth. Zoo officials hope their increased knowledge about artificial insemination (since female pandas are fertile just once a year) and panda behavior (it is now believed pandas breed more easily when they socialize as children) will help these pandas a couple of years from now, when they are old enough to mate. Until then, their mission will be pretty simple: Eat, play, nap.

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