A Farewell to Charms: Panda Taishan Returns to China

The hottest news in Washington is not rising tensions between China and the U.S., or even the economy, but the return of the beloved panda Taishan from the National Zoo to China. The Washington Post has special coverage including a visualization of his journey which includes a ride in a FedEx plane painted with his image and a custom-made crate:

The black-and-white bear who was born at the National Zoo at 3:41 a.m. on a Saturday morning in July 2005, departed the zoo just after 9 a.m. in a special crate, aboard a special truck via an undisclosed route for a special flight to the Orient out of Dulles International Airport. Shortly after noon, a plane took off from Dulles Airport with Tai Shan ensconced aboard, ending an unlikely 4 1/2 -year love fest between the hard-boiled nation’s capital and an oddball bear with black ears, a mesmerizing gaze and an appetite for pears.

Born so small and nearly hairless he was nicknamed “Butterstick,” Tai Shan came to fascinate millions of people who saw him in person or via the zoo’s pandacams. He spawned a fan club, panda merchandise, bumper stickers, postage stamps, videos, documentaries, license plates. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty once called him Washington’s most important citizen.

But as the cub grew older and more mature, his days here grew numbered. Although he was born at the National Zoo, he remained the property of China by the terms of the agreement that brought his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, here 10 years ago.

Giant are native to China and are endangered. Tai Shan is being sent to join a breeding program there to help increase the giant panda population.

Read what Twitterers are saying about the departure of #Taishan.

Taishan has developed his fanatic following. The Washington Post profiles one of them:

And as the sun set in a murky sky, they gathered one last time by the now-vacant outdoor enclosure.

Often, they said, people ask them why they’ve spent so much time there.

“You don’t know why,” Nguyen said. “It’s like a magic.”

“You don’t connect the dots until later on, when you stand back and you look and you say, ‘There I was,’ ” she added. “Going there, to the zoo. By myself. I felt like no one understood me. . . . It’s just been a blessing in my life.”

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