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Bao Bao's one-year birthday unleashes panda-monium

By KAREN CHEN The Washington Post

Publication: The Day

Published August 24. 2014 4:00AM
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo
Panda cub Bao Bao licks her birthday cake at the National Zoo in Washington, Saturday. Bao Bao's first birthday was celebrated at the zoo with a traditional Zhuazhou ceremony, a Chinese birthday tradition symbolizing long life.

Washington - Three-hundred and sixty-five days ago, a then rather un-cute, unnamed baby giant panda was born: pink, pint-size and blind. Even before she became adorable, she was adored. On Saturday, Bao Bao celebrated her first birthday at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, where crowds gathered early to fete the charmingly fumbling cub.

As she completes her first rotation around the sun, the black and white fur ball has proved that she lives up to her name as a "treasure." The zoo planned a full schedule of birthday events that would make most other Washington babies' parties seem rather unfrilled, including a frozen cake of fruit and sweet potato for Bao Bao and activities for the public such as educational talks with the keepers and a chance to try a Chinese noodle dish called dandan from Sichuan province, where many of the giant pandas live.

At 8 a.m., the cameras were pointed at the yard that had been prepared for Bao Bao's modified Zhuazhou ceremony - a Chinese tradition in which families present a baby with several symbolic objects on his or her first birthday, with the one the child selects indicating something that will be important later in life.

Ahead of the ceremony, which was restricted to embassy and zoo officials and the media, three posters were stuck to bamboo poles above a cave in the panda yard. Each poster, on brown, non-toxic paper, was painted with a different symbol: peaches signifying longevity, bamboo meaning good health and pomegranates representing fertility - fitting for an endangered species. To entice Bao Bao to participate, keepers placed a honey-coated stick of bamboo under each sign.

After some coaxing - she was tired, zoo staff said - Bao Bao ambled out of her enclosure and nimbly walked across a large tree branch before noticing the treats. She went straight for the sign closest to her, choosing the symbol for a long life. She then proceeded to the sign for good health to continue collecting her birthday treats. She didn't stop there, pawing at the bamboo stick that held the poster up and flashing her pink tongue in anticipation of more. Soon she had eaten all the treats and sat atop one of the crumpled posters.

"I think she's very logical," said Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai of the cub's ceremonial selections. He said he couldn't remember whether he had taken part in the tradition when he was one year old. "I have to ask my parents."

Cui, who has called Bao Bao Washington's other Chinese ambassador, acknowledging a long-standing practice of "panda diplomacy" in which China would give or loan pandas to other countries as a cute message of goodwill, thanked the zoo for caring for Bao Bao and collaborating in a global effort to help the species.

"This is our shared responsibility to cooperate and preserve their species," he said. "I think this shows what we can do when we work together and we can extend that cooperation to protecting the environment and fighting climate change."

Naturally adorable, the young diva didn't need to be panda-ring to the media. Lenses and coos followed her every step. At one point she climbed into a tree and caused a flurry of photo-snapping when she acrobatically suspended herself from a branch.

"She's so lovely and cute it's natural everyone loves her," Cui said, taking photos with his phone.

Nicole MacCorkle, one of Bao Bao's keepers, looked fondly at the panda she'd watched since birth. Seated beside her on her husband's lap, MacCorkle's human daughter, Chloe, held two stuffed animals and her cutout panda-birthday hat.

Chloe is a budding animal lover and visits her mom and the animals at the zoo often, her father, Matthew MacCorkle, said.

"Whatever's black and white, so she's really into zebras and pandas right now," he said as he asked bounced her on his knee.

Chloe's mother recalled the day last year when she and the other keepers heard that Mei Xiang's water had broken. The keepers gathered around the screen in the camera room that was live-streaming high definition footage of the birth.

"There was lots of nervous energy and then a lot of hugs and high fives," she said.

Juan Rodriguez, another of Bao Bao's keepers, said he liked to see her develop her skills.

"She would have these little tumbles, but she's mastered climbing now," he said. "She's very independent and very protective of her sweet potatoes. Both her and her mom love them so now, when Bao Bao gets one she likes to keep it to herself."

At 9 a.m., members of the Friends of the National Zoo poured in for a private two-hour morning event, fans of all ages beaming as they rushed to see the birthday girl. Some wore bright coral T-shirts celebrating the cub's birthday. Others were decked out in everything panda, many toting cameras and the chairs they had been brought so they could stake out their place in line.

A group of Girl Scouts also rushed to squeeze in right against the barrier, trying to get as close as possible. The troupe of badge-wearing 9- and 10-year-olds from Gaithersburg. Md., had visited Bao Bao before, and they piped up with questions and facts about pandas.

"They're cute and fluffy and cuddly and furry," one Girl Scout said.

"They look like stuffed animals," said chaperone Jane Stosko, 47, also a self-declared panda fan.

"I think it's so rare, it's an experience they won't have everywhere," she said.

Many toddlers not much older than Bao Bao came in, some in strollers, others strapped to a parent's back. Older adorers craned their necks and Darrell Lee Martin, decked out in a furry panda baseball cap, giddily celebrated his 43rd birthday. His best friend treated him by driving the panda fanatic all the way from Asheville, N.C., for the double birthday party.

Martin said that when he was a boy his father had won him a stuffed panda toy at a carnival.

"It was like Calvin and Hobbes, you know, when he thinks his tiger is real," Martin said. As he went through school he did book reports about pandas and collected a few panda items. It wasn't until he grew older that he realized he associated pandas with safety and comfort.

"I lost my son in a day-care accident," he said. "Pandas make me feel good no matter how bad it gets."

Martin posts panda photos on Facebook almost every day and has met other panda fans online. From his online community he learned about an opportunity to fly to China to volunteer at a panda reserve in Sichuan province.

"I went over to Chengdu, not speaking the language or anything, a country boy from Asheville," he said.

For him, the experience was one of two impossible things he thought he'd never get to do.

"The most impossible thing is to hold my son again," he said, finding a photo in his phone of himself in China with a panda leaning against him. Martin said he had volunteered and dubbed his job the "super duper panda poo scooper."

"That's the closest to my son I'm going to feel. You see how big I'm smiling?" he said. "I haven't smiled like that since I saw my son smile."

His new friend and fellow panda enthusiast Karen Meyers, 51, of Columbia, Md., pats Martin's shoulder. "It's therapeutic," she said. The two met in line waiting to be allowed in to see Bao Bao on Saturday morning.

"Panda lovers are friendly and outgoing. We bond instantly," she said. Each day when she drives home from work, Meyers finds comfort watching panda cams like the one offered by the National Zoo.

"Sometimes I just want to reach into the screen and burp them," she said, recalling the hours she has spent watching baby pandas grow in zoos across the world. She, too, has found a community online that shares her passion for the creatures. She woke up at 4:30 a.m. Saturday to get ready for the zoo visit. To balance the news on TV, she went to the panda cam.

"We each find our own happiness our own way, and ours is pandas," she said.

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