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My Pandas

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Following the Panda Trail

Although I longed to see a giant panda in the fur, I steadfastly refused to visit a zoo to do so, mistakenly believing that the animals would all be behind bars. Finally, in May 1998, realising that this might be the only way I’d ever see a panda, I gave in to my prejudice and travelled to San Diego where there were two pandas, Shi Shi and Bai Yun. To my delight, they weren’t behind bars and this hugely enjoyable experience changed the way I felt about zoos.

After that, there was no stopping me and, the following year, I followed the panda trail to Madrid Zoo where, having asked someone for directions to the panda enclosure, my husband and I found ourselves inside a small building. However, instead of finding Chu Lin, the first panda to be born in Europe, either sleeping or chomping away on some juicy bamboo, to our horror, we were confronted by his stuffed body displayed inside a glass case because, as another zoo employee told us, ‘The panda is deaded.’ (sic)!’ I had another disappointment in Paris, when their zoo’s giant panda, Yen Yen, died shortly before we were due to pay him a visit. As you can imagine, by this time I was beginning to think that I was at least partly responsible for the panda’s endangered status!

In February 2001, to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary, Jim and I went to Washington to see Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, newly arrived from China on board a FedEx plane dubbed ‘Panda One’. This time, I’m delighted to report that both pandas were very much alive and munching! As I was covering the visit for the magazine, I had arranged to meet the zoo’s spokesman, Dr. Bob Hoage and, although his speciality was monkeys, his enthusiasm and obvious love for the two pandas was very apparent and, in fact, almost matched mine! I was also extremely fortunate to have an interview with Lisa Stevens, the charming head panda keeper, who shared some of her special panda moments with me. Jim had decided to mark our anniversary by ‘buying’ me a brick paver, which would be inscribed with my name and installed in the walkway bordering the zoo’s new panda habitat. Naturally, I was delighted as not only would I be part of the pandas’ renovated home but, once the paver was in place, I would also have the perfect excuse for returning to this wonderful city to see it.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian weren’t, of course, Washington’s first giant pandas. They were Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling, presented by Mao Tse-Tung to Richard Nixon in 1972 as a gift to the American people. For the next twenty years, the zoo desperately hoped that the pair would produce a baby but, although Ling Ling had five cubs, sadly none survived for more than a few days. There was, therefore, great jubilation when, at 3.41 am on 9th July 2005, Mei Xiang gave birth to a healthy baby boy who, at his naming ceremony, held 100 days later according to Chinese custom, was given the name Tai Shan.

Early in December, I returned to Washington to cover this extra-special baby panda’s public debut and, as one of the furthest travelled visitors, I was interviewed for ABC News – the perfect way to mark this historic day. Tai Shan and his mom were, of course, the centre of attention in their inside quarters but, each day, after I’d ‘ooohed’ and ‘aaahed’ at the cute bundle of fluff’s antics during my allotted time slots, I would go outside to spend time with the proud father who was blissfully unaware of what was going on. My persistence was rewarded when a seasonal fall of snow gave me some of my most atmospheric panda photos to date.