WASHINGTON — They were treated like pop idols — except for being stuck in travel crates.
Adoring crowds and television viewers watched today as American-born giant pandas Mei Lan and Tai Shan were loaded onto a special cargo jet for a flight to their new homes in China for breeding.
Normally placid, 3-year-old Mei Lan from Zoo Atlanta whirled and paced in her crate as camera flashes popped. Tai Shan, a 4 1/2-year-old born in Washington, hid at first but was drawn into view as his longtime keepers at the National Zoo knelt silently at his crate to say goodbye, hand-feeding him slices of apples and pears.
One zookeeper wiped away tears. Federal police officers escorted Tai Shan to the airport, and FedEx workers transporting the pair buzzed around in “Panda Team” jackets to go with the huge panda emblem painted on their jet. News networks provided live coverage of the plane waiting on the tarmac and taking off.
As the Boeing 777’s giant engines rumbled to life, tears started to flow for panda lover Mara Strock of Burke, Va., who looked on with other invited guests.
“I love Tai Shan so much, I don’t know how I’m going to handle it,” she said, watching the plane pull away.
Clutching a stuffed black-and-white bear, 10-year-old Caleigh Davis of Springfield, Va., said she was sad to see Tai Shan go but glad he could go with his cousin.
“The thing I’m most afraid of is that he’s going to eat too much food,” she said, “and have a sick stomach.”
Millions of people fell in love with the pandas as star attractions in zoo exhibits and by watching them grow up via online panda cams. And in Washington, the animals have a particularly long and symbolic history.
The first panda couple at the National Zoo, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, arrived in 1972 as a gift to the American people from China after President Richard Nixon’s historic visit.
The pair lived more than 20 years at the zoo and produced five cubs — but none survived. That’s partly why Tai Shan, the first cub to grow up in the nation’s capital, is so adored.
Pandas may be China’s most compelling ambassadors as the country clashes with the U.S. on many issues, including trade, human rights and Internet security. Tai Shan’s departure gave diplomats a rare moment of harmony.
“He is a tangible, and furry, manifestation of cooperation between the United States and China,” U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said today.
Xie Feng, minister of the Chinese Embassy, said Tai Shan “has grown up with the blessing, love and care of the American people.”
“He has now grown into a handsome young man, and it’s time for him to go home,” he said.
China lent Tai Shan’s and Mei Lan’s parents to U.S. zoos for conservation, and now they will become part of a breeding program in their endangered species’ native land. About 1,600 giant pandas live in the wild, and another 290 are in captive-breeding programs worldwide, mainly in China.
Mei Lan, the first cub born at Zoo Atlanta in 2006, could be seen pacing back and forth when her steel crate was driven out onto the Atlanta tarmac and past a row of television cameras.
Mei Lan’s parents, Lun Lun and Yang Yang, had a second cub — Xi Lan, a male born in 2008. Zoo officials in Washington are hoping for another cub as well.
For animal keeper Nicole Meese, Tai Shan’s departure is personal. He was a baby when she first held him, and she later spent late nights calling him down from trees. Now she’s traveling with him to ease the transition, ready to teach his Chinese keepers the hand signals he uses.
“Every day, he makes me smile,” she said.