Bao Bao's last day at the National Zoo
Bao Bao's last day at the National Zoo Playful Bao Bao, enjoying her last day at the National Zoo before making the trip to China. (Smithsonian's National Zoo)
Bao Bao's last day at the National Zoo
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Tuesday morning, Feb. 21, was Bao Bao's final one at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington. For the young giant panda, it might as well have been any other.
But for others, those early post-dawn hours were more difficult.
"Bittersweet is the best word I can use to describe it," keeper Stacey Tabellario told me. As someone who has worked with Bao Bao throughout the animal's life, Tabellario has always known that she would have to say goodbye.
"You know it's going to happen," she said, before continuing. "But that doesn't mean there weren't tears this morning. And that there won't be more tears later."
You wouldn't have known it, though, to watch Tabellario and her fellow keepers as they prepared for Bao Bao's departure. Together, they carried supplies for the flight, by the official manifest - "50 pounds of bamboo, 2 pounds apples, two bags of leafeater biscuits, cooked sweet potatoes and water" - to a waiting FedEx van. There, FedEx personnel loaded it into an AMJ. It is a sizable aluminum shipping container that's large enough to transport food for an entire menagerie.
Soon after, Bao Bao herself passed by. She was concealed by the perforated white walls of her own enclosure. Weighing hundreds of pounds, this sturdy construction was carried by a bright yellow JCB forklift that had been decorated with an oversized pair of black panda ears and a bushy white tail, as if to make up for the invisibility of the departing star.
Turning a corner, the forklift operator loaded his precious cargo onto a second truck, decorated - like its companion vehicle - with an enormous panda decal.
Though much of this phase of the operation unfolded out of sight, what followed was visible to all. A group of panda keepers surrounded Marty Dearie, who would be accompanying Bao Bao on her 16-hour flight to Chengdu, along with a veterinarian from the zoo. One after the next, each of them hugged Dearie.
"We are a very strong team," Tabellario told me when I asked her about this seemingly impromptu ritual. "As much as we love the animals, we all love each other too."
Not long after, the two trucks pulled out. They headed to Washington's Dulles Airport. There, a similar ceremony played out, less the panda keepers and the monochromatically decorated forklift. From a podium, Dennis Kelly, director of the zoo, addressed the importance of Bao Bao's trip. He stressed that it was critical to give her the opportunity to reproduce and propagate her still-imperiled species. Connecting these efforts to everything the zoo does, Kelly noted, "Saving species is a forever business."
It was an apt phrase. Not least of all because life was presumably preceding as usual back at the National Zoo. Though the grounds had been closed for the morning departure, keepers were looking after other animals behind the scenes. It was the same as any other day at the zoo.
Things will change for the pandas, to be sure. But the three who remain at the zoo likely won't notice Bao Bao's departure any more than she did the hullabaloo that preceded it. If anything, they may enjoy the change. After all, the younger Bei Bei, already on the verge of weaning from her mother, will soon move into Bao Bao's now vacant yard. And before long, Mei Xiang may be pregnant again. That is a prospect that presents both new challenges and exciting opportunities for the zoo.
Thinking of the work ahead, Tabellario shook her head fondly.
"There's no rest for a panda team," she said, smiling.

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Why does China have strict agreements about its pandas?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • nylao-orv
    2/25/2017 - 05:10 p.m.

    China has worked with Pandas a longer time know what there doing

  • jacquelynt-
    2/27/2017 - 08:39 a.m.

    How well will Bao Bao do in the wild?
    was she born in a encloser or the wild?
    So many unanswered questions

  • kimberlyc-
    2/27/2017 - 08:40 a.m.

    China has strict agreements about it's panda because they want to make sure that the panda is safe

  • madelync-
    2/27/2017 - 08:40 a.m.

    They have strict agreements about its panda because both a veterinarian and a panda keeper went with Bao Bao the panda. They also packed tons and tons of food.

  • joeyh-
    2/27/2017 - 08:40 a.m.

    Pandas are endangered species, so they have to be cared for very closely. Since Pandas are native to China, they are considered "visitors" to the U.S. China needs to be sure their animal species don't go extinct, so they are taking Bao Bao back so it can reproduce.

  • saraip-
    2/27/2017 - 08:41 a.m.

    That must be really hard to let something you like or love go away.

  • nicholash2003-
    2/27/2017 - 08:44 a.m.

    I think China has such strict agreements about pandas because they're not a animal you see everyday. Also they care for animals like these because they want to give them a chance to reproduce and propagate her still-imperiled species.

  • carlosj-
    2/27/2017 - 01:04 p.m.

    i think they have those agreements because they want to keep the pandas safe.

  • alexd1-bur
    2/27/2017 - 02:08 p.m.

    its be cause theyre becoming extinct so they have strict rules about them since they live in china. they are trying to keep them alive

  • andresb-
    2/28/2017 - 08:35 a.m.

    China has strict agreements about its pandas because pandas are endangered animals.

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