Cuddly, cute and captivating

National Zoo's giant panda cub meets and wows the press

November 30, 2005|By ABIGAIL TUCKER | ABIGAIL TUCKER,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The camera lights were so bright that it looked as though a spaceship had touched down in the thicket of bamboo outside the panda exhibit, and perhaps one had. Certainly it seemed like every earthbound news outlet was there: television crews from China, Russia and England, writers from both U.S. coasts. All told, about 100 journalists clamored to pose the important questions of the day:

Did he get mommy's round eye spots or daddy's bean-shaped ones? He doesn't look like a stick of butter anymore - does he?

Tai Shan, the National Zoo's 4 1/2 -month-old giant panda cub, was unveiled to the media yesterday at a cooing, squealing news conference that yielded the following news flash: He's darn cute.

For some journalists it was the first glimpse of the baby, who will be on public view at the Washington zoo starting Dec. 8; other admirers had been salivating over him for months via the Panda Cam (animal.discovery.com/cams/pandavidr.html), an online surveillance system that continues to monitor his every wriggle.

"It's just something about pandas," said Nicole Meese, one of six animal keepers assigned to the 21-pound cub, which weighed about 4 ounces when he was born July 9, pink, hairless and approximately the size of a stick of Land O'Lakes. "Everyone can identify with something that cute."

He has received notable visitors, including Nicole Kidman - who's been in the area filming a movie lately - and various Washington dignitaries and major zoo donors and affiliates. More than 10,000 VIPs will have sneaked a peak at the cub by the second week of December, zoo officials said.

But that's nothing compared to the pandemonium that will follow the official debut of Tai Shan, whose name means "peaceful mountain" in Chinese. All 13,000 free tickets for 10-minute viewings of the panda in December and early January were gone within two hours of their initial offering Nov. 21. Some of those tickets have since resurfaced on eBay with price tags ranging into the hundreds of dollars.

Yesterday, five shifts of swooning journalists trooped into the panda building, elbowing for the best view of the baby's glass-enclosed habitat: a cloudscape meant to resemble the mountains of the Wolong Nature Reserve in China, home to many wild pandas.

Within a few minutes, a keeper appeared, bearing the flailing, flour-sack-sized Tai Shan.

He was as fat as a bumblebee, and frisky. He waddled up the side of rock structures, occasionally plummeting off small cliffs into hay piles below as reporters sighed with delight. He stunned one group by wading in, and drinking from, a little trickle of a waterfall that runs through the center of his cage. His mother, 7-year-old Mei Xiang, and father, 8-year-old Tian Tian, were elsewhere.

Especially in contrast with five other giant panda cubs born at the National Zoo, none of which lived longer than four days, Tai Shan is a husky, vivacious cub, his handlers say. He's so active that it's not clear whether his name really fits. The peaceful mountain - who has recently erupted in teeth - now barks at zoo staff members and chases his 235-pound mother. His keepers lovingly dub these behaviors "assertive" and "charismatic."

Bratty or not, the staff says that the cub is the biggest hit at the zoo since Kandula, an elephant calf, was born there in 2001. The hysteria surrounding last year's cheetah litter seems mild in comparison.

This is only natural, said Lisa Stevens, the zoo's assistant curator for pandas: Not only are pandas notoriously hard to breed, but they fit the human definition of cuteness with their round faces, prominent ears and big eyes.

"All of that is a major `awww' factor for us, because it's what our children look like," Stevens said.

Most of the hundreds of babies born at the zoo each year arrive to no fanfare at all, and that's a shame, said Stevens, who was recently charmed by a pack of infant chameleons sunning themselves at the reptile house.

"They were so cute!" she said. "The neat thing is that all of these animals have a story to tell."

More tickets to see Tai Shan may be available in the winter; updates will be posted on the zoo's Web site, nationalzoo.si.edu. Until then, enjoy the chameleons.

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com

For a link to the National Zoo's Panda Cam, go to baltimoresun.com/pandacam.

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