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3rd Birthday Means New Life--in China--for San Diego-Born Panda

Zoo: Hua Mei is getting a giant send-off from her adoring fans before loan agreement ends.


SAN DIEGO — It is always an emotional affair when a superstar makes a farewell tour before departing the stage.

Sinatra. Chevalier. Kareem. Hua Mei.

The giant panda whose birth at the San Diego Zoo brought rejoicing to a panda-loving populace is going home to China.

Under the panda loan agreement between the U.S. and China that brought the male Shi Shi and female Bai Yun to San Diego in 1996, any progeny from their union is the property of China and must be returned to the creature's native land at age 3. Hua Mei (pronounced wah-may) turns 3 on Aug. 21.

Although no date has been set, San Diego zookeepers are preparing the public for Hua Mei's imminent departure. Freeway billboards, television commercials and multiple signs at the zoo remind visitors that her long run is coming to an end.

As a kind of zoological therapy, patrons can videotape farewell messages to Hua Mei, the only surviving panda ever born at a zoo in North America. "People are very emotional," said Ellie Rosenbaum, the zoo's senior panda narrator. "They watched her birth on the Internet. They've watched her grow up on the panda cam [the zoo's Web site]. They feel like she's ours."

Of the 4,000 animals at the San Diego Zoo, there is little doubt that Hua Mei is the most popular with its 3 million annual visitors.

Bai Yun (bi-yoon) and Shi Shi (shee-shee) have their own constituencies, but Hua Mei surpasses them, zoo officials say. More visitors see the pandas than any other animal, and Hua Mei's popularity has spawned a trove of trinkets: Hua Mei T-shirts, Hua Mei mugs, Hua Mei books and more.

Not that this is altogether surprising. Since the first panda arrived in the U.S. in the 1920s, no other zoo animal has so captivated the public as the fuzzy creatures with the hypnotic black-and-white coloring. Zookeepers have a term for pandas: charismatic mega-vertebrates.

Even by panda standards, Hua Mei has a star's knack for pleasing the public. From a birth weight of 4 ounces, she is now pushing 190 pounds--only 30 pounds less than her father. She bounds into her enclosure each morning and scampers around to such acclaim that visitors' cameras click like a herd of crickets.

"She's surprised us with the intensity of her vigor," said Don Lindburg, the zoo's giant panda team leader.

When Hua Mei climbs her tree for her daily nap, she seems to make a point of staying visible, with her face turned toward the passing crowd. Shi Shi, by comparison, sprawls carelessly like a couch potato and visitors often are treated merely to the sight of his back and rump.

Even popular animals can have little or no stage presence. Koalas are Garbo-like in their mania for seclusion, and apes have been known to react to zoo patrons like rock stars being pestered by paparazzi.

As enthusiastically as they have been greeted in zoos worldwide, pandas have struggled on their home turf. Their numbers in China have dwindled perilously. Habitat is disappearing rapidly. And expanding the population is made extremely difficult by a reproductive peculiarity--females are in heat just two days a year.

As part of the loan agreement, the San Diego Zoo contributes $1 million a year to China's panda-protection efforts.

When Shi Shi and Bai Yun arrived in 1996, the goal was for scientists to begin unlocking the mysteries of panda procreation. But the May-December pair had compatibility problems from the beginning. Bai Yun was fecund and frisky, but Shi Shi was uninterested. Hua Mei was the result of artificial insemination.

At 26, Shi Shi is geriatric. When Hua Mei departs for the Wolong Giant Panda Research Center in China, so will Shi Shi. The zoo already has identified a younger male--Gao Gao, 9--as a replacement. "We feel we've only got half of the story," Lindburg said. "We've never had a mating here, never had a mounting. Our chance to learn about mating and courtship has been limited."

For all their cuddly appearance, pandas are not much on family, and Hua Mei, Shi Shi and Bai Yun are kept apart.

Bai Yun, 10, was artificially inseminated with Shi Shi's sperm in March, and zoo officials are still hopeful she could be pregnant. She is not put on display.

"We want her thinking calm, tranquil, fertile thoughts," Rosenbaum said.

In the U.S., only Zoo Atlanta and the National Zoo in Washington also have pandas.

The agreement that brought Shi Shi and Bai Yun to San Diego is set to expire in six years, and its renewal potential is unclear; panda geopolitics are delicate and complex.

As the summer tourist season hits its stride, there is a daily pilgrimage to the panda exhibit to see Hua Mei one last time.

"I remember when she was born," said Brandon Burton, a bus driver who came from Downey with his wife and two children to see Hua Mei. "We can't let her leave without saying goodbye."

To the Burton family and all the panda faithful, Rosenbaum offers anthropomorphic solace.

"I know it seems she was just born, but they grow up fast," she said. "It's like sending one of your kids off to college: It's time to move on."

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