When the baby giant panda Tai Shan was born at the National Zoo in 2005, thousands went to visit. He was an instant celebrity.
When the black and white bear was sent to China, a group of area admirers decided to make that trip, too.
Karen Wille, of Arlington, Va., and Christine Harper, of Derwood, Md., have been big fans of the National Zoo's panda family. Both women were overjoyed when two pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, on loan from China, gave birth to the panda cub. For them, like many, Tai Shan was the zoo's biggest star.
So when news came that Tai Shan was being returned to China, the women were heartbroken. So, they resolved to follow their beloved bear.
Relatives and friends were skeptical of the women's plans to travel to China. "'Why would you go all the way to China to see a panda, don't you think you're a little crazy,'" Karen Wille said people asked her. "I always answer the same way, it's a passion that I have for giant pandas."
Wille, Harper and two other women, made the trip last September. They volunteered at the Ya'an Bifeng Gorge Breeding Area, a preserve for pandas in southwest China. The pair pitched in for a week, taking part in the care of the giant pandas, which let them get close to Tai Shan.
"We got to clean up his enclosure," Christine Harper said. "Clean up after him and give him fresh bamboo. Feed him treats and touch his paws."
Karen Wille said the animal is in good spirits. "He learns very quickly. He's very flexible. He adapts well. Some pandas did not adapt as well, but he's a champ."
Tai Shan's parents have been at the National Zoo for 10 years, and the zoo recently reached a deal to keep them for five more years.
For Wille and Harper, they miss visiting Tai Shan in Washington, but they say they will see the panda again.
The pair plans on going back to China next year.
Pandas International: A non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the Giant Panda.
Smithsonian National Zoo: Learn about their efforts toward conservation and preservation of the giant pandas as well as to view an online webcam of their two pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian (Tai Shan's parents).
Pandas Unlimited: Promoting the conservation and welfare of the giant panda by raising awareness of their plight and funds to support the work of scientists and conservationists seeking to save the animals.
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