Will the National Zoo change without Bao Bao?
“Ask the bamboo,” joked Noah Tadele, 9, an aspiring veterinarian who was at the zoo Tuesday to say good-bye to Bao Bao, a panda cub headed home to China after four years as the big celebrity at the National Zoo.
Americans across the country joined Tadele in person or online to bid farewell at the cub before she left the zoo to participate in China’s panda breeding program. Bao Bao, born at the National Zoo Aug. 23, 2013, is part of an agreement with China that requires any giant panda cub born in the United States to be returned to China at around age 4. China owns all the giant pandas in the U.S. and leases them to American zoos.
The National Zoo held a series of parties the week before Bao Bao’s departure to commemorate the cub’s time in America – and her love for food, especially bamboo.
Like Tadele, Michael Brown-Palsgrove, the zoo’s curator of giant pandas, said he’ll always remember Bao Bao for her appetite – the 4-year-old eats about 20 pounds of bamboo per day. Evolution has given the pandas a thumb to better grip and eat bamboo, Brown-Palsgrove said. He finds solace in the fact that Bao Bao will soon live in the land of wild bamboo.
“She’s going to have the best bamboo in the world,” he said of Bao Bao’s new home in southwest Chengdu, China.
In the days before Bao Bao’s goodbye, some 60,000 panda-lovers attended ice cream cake, dumpling and peach eating parties to commemorate her life at the zoo.
Eating seemed to be the central theme in Bao Bao’s farewell celebrations. The Porter family said they waited 40-minutes at the zoo’s panda enclosure Monday to watch Bao Bao eat her heart-shaped ice cream cake.
“We knew it would be crowded here, and you do the best you can,” said Margo Porter of Silver Spring, Maryland. “It’s our last chance to see a panda before it goes back to the wild.”
Likewise, Tadele and his mom, Maedot, traveled nearly 400 miles from Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Washington to watch Bao Bao lick honey from the bottom of a storage container.
“It’s his favorite place, we had to stop by,” Maedot said of her son.
The boy posed next to a life-size cut-out of a panda and joked that the cub was eating his arm.
Even more people tuned in to commemorate Bao Bao’s departure virtually.
“Bao Bao we’ll miss you terribly,” one fan wrote on the National Zoo’s Facebook page. “I hope you have a wonderful life in your homeland. Take with you the love of millions here. Tears…”
Brown-Palsgrove said the Facebook fan and thousands of others “have been able to watch Bao Bao grow up from the time she was a tiny cub, watching her on our panda cams.”
“They feel a part of her life, and want to celebrate that.”
@ntepper, phone 630-251-8560