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.
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.