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Working the Room Like a Politician

Tai Shan, the National Zoo's 4 1/2-month-old giant panda cub, meets the international media.

November 30, 2005|Emma Vaughn | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The hottest celebrity in the nation's capital made his first appearance before the world media Tuesday, engaging in a charm offensive that would put vote-seeking politicians to shame.

As cameras flashed and hearts melted, Tai Shan, the National Zoo's 4 1/2 -month-old giant panda cub, strutted and wobbled around his glass enclosure. Even the most cynical of the 100 or so international reporters -- some from as far as China and Russia -- couldn't help cooing as the 21-pound black-and-white bundle tumbled about his rocky domain.

"We couldn't ask for a cuter cub," said Bill Xanten, the zoo's head curator. "He's so personable and active, and his mother is just a super mother. We really couldn't be happier."

Tai Shan, which means "peaceful mountain" in Chinese, is the sixth panda to be born at the National Zoo but the first to live more than five days. His mother, Mei Xiang, and her mate, Tian Tian, arrived in the United States in 2000 on a 10-year loan from China. Under the loan agreement, any cubs will be sent to China after their second birthday.

Since his birth July 9, millions of fans around the world have followed Tai Shan's progress on the 24-hour "panda cam" at the zoo's website, http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/GiantPandas.

"I watch it all the time," said Peper Long, a zoo spokeswoman. "You find yourself watching it much more than you should. It's just thrilling."

Even U.S. soldiers in Iraq are enjoying the cub's everyday activities. JoGayle Howard, a reproductive scientist at the National Zoo, said the zoo had received a number of e-mails from the war zone.

"The soldiers over there say that it just makes their day when they get to watch the video of Tai Shan," Howard said. "It's a great ambassador for our work at the zoo and conservation in general."

Tai Shan will make his public debut Dec. 8, and demand for the free tickets has been intense. The first round of 13,000 -- for 10-minute viewing times through Jan. 2 -- were claimed within two hours of their release; some are being auctioned on EBay.

Lisa Stevens, assistant curator for pandas, said the bears' appeal came from their human characteristics.

"We're programmed to find animals appealing that look like our toddlers and infants, and pandas are the perfect example of that," Stevens said. "They do things like sit up and hold their food like we do, and we just melt when we see that."

Zoo officials hope that Tai Shan's popularity will focus attention on conservation efforts. About 1,600 pandas remain in the wild in the bamboo forests of China, and the zoo hopes to raise $400,000 next year for breeding research.

Zoos in San Diego, Atlanta and Memphis also have panda pairs.

Tai Shan was the first of two giant panda cubs born in the United States this year. The second, a female named Su Lin (which means "a little bit of something very cute"), is at the San Diego Zoo.

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