The Life, Times, and Departure of Bao Bao the Panda

Four years after her miraculous birth at Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo, the fluffy celebrity is headed to China.

Connor Mallon/Smithsonian's National Zoo

The sign on the fence says, “Caution: A panda may be in this yard.” And as I peer through a glass panel, I see that it is accurate. There is, indeed, a panda in the yard.

Her name is Bao Bao, and on this cold and windy afternoon at the National Zoo in  Washington, D.C. , she is prostrate and asleep. “She’s like, Yeah I’m being a panda. This is what I do,” says Brandie Smith, the zoo’s associate director of animal-care sciences.

(Ed Yong)

Next to us is a white metal crate—four feet high, and six feet long. The FedEx logo is emblazoned on the top. On the side, there’s a sticker that reads “Contents: one panda,” and some “This Way Up” arrows. On February 21, Bao Bao will be ushered into this crate for a 16-hour flight to China. It’ll be the only flight she ever takes, and the first time she’ll venture out of the zoo where she was born. She will travel as she has always lived—in the bright gleam of the public eye.

Bao Bao is a celebrity. From the moment of her seemingly miraculous birth on August 2013, people around the world have followed her exploits on webcams. Through social media, they watched her enjoying her first snowfall. Through an online poll, they decided her name. And through emails and tweets, they’ve offered their opinions on panda husbandry. “People feel like they’re part of her family,” says Smith. “They think, ‘Here’s what you should do with our panda,’ not ‘Here’s what you should do with your panda.’ It’s been like raising a child with the entire world watching.”

The National Zoo first started keeping giant pandas in 1972, when Mao Tse-Tung donated a pair to the Nixon administration. They mated repeatedly but none of their five cubs made it past infancy, and both animals died in the 90s. Frustrated, a joint team of American and Chinese researchers began intensively studying the animals’ hormones, diet, reproductive biology, and more. At a time of strained relationships between the two countries, “we worked together over the bodies of anesthetized pandas and built trust and friendship that carries on to this day,” says David Wildt, who now heads the zoo’s Center for Species Survival.

Their efforts eventually paid off. In the early 2000s, after advances in artificial insemination, Chinese breeding centers became filled with piles of baby pandas. And in 2005, Mei Xiang, the second female to be loaned to the National Zoo, gave birth to a healthy male cub named Tai Shan. Smith remembers meeting Tai Shan when she joined the zoo a few years later as the Curator of Mammals. “It was like meeting a rockstar,” she says. “I was a little nervous. Will he like me?

But Tai Shan’s successful birth heralded a seven-year reproductive drought. By 2012, Mei Xiang’s odds of having another cub were less than 5 percent. “Given her age, and how long it had been since she’d had Tai Shan, everyone thought that was it,” says Smith. “Every one of us on the panda team said: she’s not going to do this. But when you work here, you do at least one impossible thing every day. We thought that if we could get the conditions right, her environment would tell her that it would be a good time to have a cub.”

Pandas give birth within cosy dens, so the team fenced off a little nook in the corner of her enclosure, about the size of an eight-person dining table. They also reduced the number of people who had access to that enclosure, and the hours they spent with her. And after all that effort, on September 2012, Mei Xiang finally gave birth to another four-ounce cub—which died six days later. Its lungs weren’t fully formed. There was nothing the team could do.

The experience was tragic, but Smith suspects that it “got Mei Xiang’s engine running again,” because a year later, it looked like she was pregnant again. The problem is that pandas go through regular pseudopregnancies, during which they’ll behave as if they are carrying a fetus even when they’re not. Experts can’t tell the sham pregnancies from the real ones, so everyone’s on tenterhooks until a pup actually emerges.

That happened on August 23, 2013. Just after midnight, Smith got a call saying that Mei Xiang was displaying all the behaviors that signal an imminent birth: restlessness, cradling objects, and genital licking. (“My husband would joke that the phone would ring at the middle of the night because the panda was licking herself,” she says.) She raced down to the zoo, and her team of a half-dozen keepers kept a long vigil, watching the maybe-mother for hours on a wall of webcams.

At 5:32 p.m., in the middle of the Friday rush hour, Mei Xiang’s water broke. She dropped the Kong toy she was cuddling, and then, from the other end, dropped a baby panda into the world.

Baby Bao Bao.
(Smithsonian's National Zoo)

It’s a weird thing to raise a panda in America, because all the pandas there—even those born on U.S. soil—are considered loans from China. And Chinese experts, who tend to be more hands-on than their American peers, wanted the zoo team to do a check-up on the baby as soon as possible. That meant extracting it from the arms of its 200-pound mother, who—and do not forget this—is a bear. “Some female pandas are mellow about you being in their space, but Mei Xiang has never been that panda,” says Smith.

Fortunately, she was also in a postpartum stupor. Keeper Juan Rodriguez distracted her by wafting honey into her face, while another keeper, Marty Dearie, reached in and pulled the cub—a female—out. She passed the check-up with flying colors. A hundred days later, she got a name—Bao Bao, meaning “precious” or “treasure.”

Knowing that she would eventually have to fly over to China, and knowing that Chinese keepers interact more with their charges, Smith’s team made a conscious decision to get Bao Bao used to human contact. “My job was the play with the baby panda,” she says. “How many people get the chance to work with a giant panda, to look at the dynamic of a mum and cub, to see her eyes open, to see her first teeth come in, to watch the black and white appear?”

From the start, Bao Bao was fearless and independent. She loved climbing, and Smith spent many late nights trying to coax her out of trees so she could go home. One Christmas Eve, she refused to descend after touching an electrified wire on the ground. “As someone who’s tried to pull a panda out of a tree, let me tell you: They can really hold on,” Smith says. “Most of us have kids and we talked about Bao Bao in the same way. My daughter’s very independent and her favorite words are ‘by myself.’ I sometimes imagine Bao Bao saying ‘by myself’ in my daughter’s voice.”

Bao Bao’s first birthday.
(Smithsonian's National Zoo)

It’s hard to imagine another threatened species attracting quite this much attention, or fostering quite this much affection. To some, the giant panda is one of the greatest icons of conservation. To others, it’s a symbol of misplaced funds and priorities. As I wrote last year, endless think pieces have argued that the panda is an evolutionary dead-end—a lazy bear that eats a poor diet, sucks at sex, and should be allowed to die out. None of that is true. Pandas are well-adapted for eating bamboo, and in the wild, they have no problems with mating. “People talk about all the attention that pandas receive, but this is what it takes to save an endangered species,” says Smith, incensed. “It’s not that pandas receive too much; it’s that every other species receives too little.”

And panda conservation is actually working. Last September, the International Union for Conservation of Nature downgraded the animal from “endangered” to merely “vulnerable.” There are still only 2,000 or so individuals left in the wild, but their population has stabilized, and may even be increasing in some areas. That’s largely due to China’s efforts to save the creature’s habitat, which inadvertently protect a vast menagerie of other species that live in the same forests.

When Bao Bao arrives in China, she will do her part too. When she becomes sexually mature, between the ages of 5 and 6, she’ll enter the panda breeding program. That program provides an insurance population that can replenish wild groups if some catastrophe should strike, and it produces a genetically diverse pool of pandas that could one day be reintroduced into the wild. Bao Bao may never roam freely among bamboo forests, but her children might.

Her brother, Tai Shan, has been living in the Wolong Nature Reserve for the past seven years, but since pandas are solitary, the two are unlikely to meet again. Likewise, Bao Bao was weaned from Mei Xiang when she was 19 months old, and the two now make aggressive barks when they see each other. There is no lingering emotion between mother and daughter.

The same can’t be said for Smith and her team, who talk about the departure like parents whose kids are leaving for college. “I will definitely miss her; she’s my girl,” she says. “But I’ve been to the breeding centers in China, and they’re gorgeous. The freshest bamboo you’ve ever seen. I know that she’s going to this amazing place.”

Meanwhile, “it’s all panda, all the time right now,” she adds. “It’s all-consuming, but we’re sending a panda to China. There’s no opportunity for failure. The entire world is watching us. Nothing can go wrong.”

Bao Bao’s crate.
(Ed Yong)
The arrows seem unnecessary.
(Ed Yong)

Step one: Get the panda into the crate. It’s currently connected to a set of metal chutes that are part of Bao Bao’s enclosure. The plan was to lead her through the chutes over the course of a few weeks, to slowly acclimatize her to the metal box. “But it’s Bao Bao, so she just walked in on the first day,” says Smith. The team then fed her with honey water to turn the crate into a familiar and happy place.

For the morning of the 21st, this is the plan. At 10:30 a.m., after her morning constitutional, Bao Bao steps into the crate. At 11, a forklift loads it onto truck, which drives to Dulles. A spare truck drives alongside in case the first one breaks down. A police escort follows in case of traffic—or, y’know, dumb people. The crate—contents: one panda—gets loaded onto a special Panda Express plane, along with 55 pounds of bamboo, two pounds of apples, two bags of leaf-eater biscuits, two pounds of sweet potatoes, and 10 gallons of water. Panda-keeper Marty Dearie (the first human to hold Bao Bao) and vet Katherine Hope hop aboard too to accompany the panda and to make sure that she settles in at Chengdu. (“That’s maybe as much for us as it is for her,” says Smith.)

And then it’s done. The doors close. The plane takes off. And Bao Bao, oblivious to the new life that awaits her, does what pandas reputedly do: eats shoots, and leaves.