National Zoo

National Zoo pandas leave DC in emotional goodbye

The National Zoo's giant pandas left D.C. for good on Wednesday

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It's a day thousands of visitors to the National Zoo have been dreading for months, or possibly years. The zoo's famed giant pandas have left D.C.

As crowds of hastily gathered fans looked on, the three pandas — each aboard an individual FedEx truck adorned with a signature furry black-and-white face — emerged from the zoo gates, traveled down Connecticut Avenue and then through Northern Virginia. They then took off aboard a specially equipped FedEx plane en route to China.

Tian Tian, 26; Mei Xiang, 25, and their youngest offspring, 3-year-old Xiao Qi Ji, will move to new homes in the China Wildlife Conservation Association. Tian Tian and Mei Xiang were born in China; Xiao Qi Ji was born at the zoo, along with three older surviving siblings who have already moved to China.

Giant pandas have been a beloved fixture in D.C. since the first duo arrived in the 1970s. Wednesday isn't the first time we've seen pandas leave the region, but it's the first time in 23 years that the panda exhibit at the zoo is empty.

In opening remarks marking the start of the pandas' journey, National Zoo Director Brandie Smith said it was a "hard morning." She spoke in front of the zoo's Asia Trail and the just-vacated panda enclosure. The zoo's online Giant Panda Cam broadcasted an empty hammock before the page switched over to offer a compilation of old footage.

“It’s a moment of joy because this is one more step in 50 years of a successful giant panda conservation program, and hopefully the beginning of 50 more years,” Smith said. “Please know the future is bright for giant pandas. We remain committed to our program, and we look forward to celebrating with all of you when pandas can return to D.C.”

Here's what the director of D.C.'s National Zoo said upon the pandas' departure.

Xu Xueyuan, a Chinese diplomat, had a parting message for the three pandas, Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and Xiao Qi Ji.

"As a diplomat in Washington, I say goodbye and bon voyage. As a Chinese government official, I say welcome back," Xueyuan said.

The zoo had carefully guarded the pandas' planned departure date, saying only that they would leave before mid-November -- until the announcement came early Wednesday. Visitors who'd turned out planning to see the pandas at the zoo instead ended up witnessing the trucks' departure. 

“We are just sending good wishes with them on their travels,” a woman who planned to see the pandas Wednesday said.

A family from Minnesota said they were disappointed to find the zoo closed in the morning. One member of the family, a little boy, was clutching a panda stuffie named "Panda Panda Panda." He said he loves pandas.

"I'm gonna cry when they leave," he said.

Others told News4 they'd seen the news and wanted to say goodbye.

“I thought it was right to say goodbye to a D.C… a D.C. part of our family,” a man from the D.C. area said.

Stay tuned to News4 so you don't miss a step of the pandas' journey. Watch live on this page, in our mobile apps and all of our streaming channels

Here's video of a create carrying panda Mei Xiang being wheeled out of D.C.'s zoo.

The long journey

Mei Xiang was the first panda to be loaded into a white FedEx crate and onto a truck at about 8 a.m. Tian Tian followed close behind. Xiao Qi Ji was carried out in his crate about 9:15 a.m.

The crates are large and were moved like heavy fragile equipment. They included air holes, up arrows and the words “Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute" on the side. 

In specially marked trucks, the pandas were escorted by a police motorcade fit for a president. They departed the zoo on Connecticut Avenue at about 9:30 a.m., taking Interstate 66 toward Dulles International Airport.

The zoo's famed giant pandas are leaving D.C., traveling up Connecticut Avenue and then boarding a specially equipped FedEx plane en route to China.

The Boeing 777 transporting the pandas, a.k.a. the FedEx "Panda Express" plane, flew from Memphis and touched down shortly after the pandas left the zoo.

When the pandas arrived at the airport their crates were carefully off-loaded from the trucks.

Mei Xiang peaked out from her crate on the way to being loaded onto the plane, giving the D.C. area one last adorable glimpse of a panda face.

Mei Xiang gave the D.C. area an adorable last glimpse of a panda.

A final news conference was held with FedEx officials at the tarmac as the pandas prepared to depart.

"We are once again honored to be a part of their journey. This time back to their homeland," a FedEx official said.

"It is a moment with some heartbreak in it, but it is also a moment of joy, because we are celebrating the world's longest running conservation program for a single species," Smith said.

Crowds cheered, clapped and some cried as the plane carrying the beloved pandas took off.

The plane lifted up its wheels just before 1 p.m. People watching below erupted into applause as the plane ascended into the sky.

The flight, which can be tracked here using number N886FD, will make a stop in Anchorage, Alaska, to refuel before continuing to China.

"The pandas, animal care experts and flight crew will then depart on a trans-Pacific route, from Washington, D.C., to Chengdu, China," zoo officials said.

In-flight amenities

Two Smithsonian zookeepers and a veterinarian joined the pandas for the roughly 19-hour journey to ensure they're well cared for.

A worker moves bamboo out of the panda exhibit at the National Zoo for the pandas' journey to China. (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Zookeepers also packed plenty of food and snacks to keep the pandas happy during the long trek, including:

  • 220 pounds of bamboo
  • 8 pounds of leaf-eater biscuits
  • 5 pounds of low-starch biscuits
  • 6 pounds of apples
  • 5 pounds of carrots
  • 6 pounds of sweet potatoes
  • 3 pounds of sugar cane
  • 1 pound of pears
  • 1 pound of cooked squash

A National Zoo without pandas

Once the pandas left the zoo, signs went up indicating the panda enclosure was closed.

The panda cam was taken off the zoo's website, with the following message in its place: "Thank you for visiting the Giant Panda Cam page. Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji have departed the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute and are now on their way to China."

The National Zoo's now-empty panda enclosure will undergo a $2.5 million renovation, Smith said. The zoo expects to finish the renovations in the next eight to 10 months, and might put other animals in the enclosure temporarily.

After today, the last two pandas in the U.S. will be at Zoo Atlanta.

'Heartbroken for us'

D.C. residents have been lamenting the impending loss of the pandas since the National Zoo announced its "Panda Palooza" event back in August.

"I'm very sad; I will miss him very much," said Rachel Weidner, a tourist who came from Philadelphia to visit Xiao Qi Ji on his last birthday in the U.S.

"But I know that he will be well taken care of," she said. "And I know that I can still follow him, and maybe even come visit him someday."

Weidner sported an entirely black-and-white outfit during her visit, complete with a headband topped with mini panda heads, hoping that the pandas might see a kindred spirit and "come and say hi" while she was at the zoo

The pandas' keepers are just as sad about their departure, although they also know the pandas will be well cared for in their new home.

"The one-on-one relationship is probably the best part of my job," said curator of pandas Laurie Thompson. "They know us really well. They are comforted by us and they trust us. So in a time of stress when they don't know what's going on, I suspect they will come and sit next to me and tell him he's a good boy."

Thompson said she was focused on getting the pandas ready to travel — and will "have my breakdown" after the pandas disembark their plane in China.

"I'm excited for their future," Smith, the zoo's director, told News4. "Although I'm a little bit heartbroken for us."

Reliving DC's panda history (including all those squishy, adorable babies)

Those living in the DMV know they had something special with these pandas.

As News4's Eun Yang — the biggest panda fan in our newsroom — said: "Seeing these roly-poly black-and-white floof balls at the National Zoo enjoying life has been a joy for me. And I aspire for a time when I, too, can just frolic in my yard, sleep whenever and wherever I want, and eat and eat again."

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrive at the National Zoo in 2000.

"They remind me that even in D.C., you can be relaxed and carefree," Yang said.

Since the beginning of the research exchange program, pandas have always served as a kind of soft diplomacy between China and the U.S. The zoo's first pair of pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, were gifted in 1972 to commemorate President Richard Nixon's historic trip to China that year.

National Zoo
Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, March 1985

Those pandas died in the 1990s, leaving behind no surviving cubs. But Mei Xiang and Tian Tian turned that luck around for the zoo.

The second pair arrived at the zoo in 2000, when they were loaned to the Smithsonian Institution by the Chinese government. An agreement with China that year "stipulated [Mei Xiang and Tian Tian] would live at the Zoo for 10 years in exchange for $10 million," according to the zoo's website.

A decade later, in January 2011, the Smithsonian and the China Wildlife Conservation Association signed a new Giant Panda Cooperative Research and Breeding Agreement, which stated the pandas would stay until December 2015. That contract was extended to 2020, then again to 2023, shortly before each previous contract expired.

But there were no more extensions.

Getty Images
Tai Shan, the National Zoo's four-month-old giant panda cub, climbs on rocks in his exhibit in Washington November 29, 2005. Zoo veterinarians say the cub now weighs 8.7 kg (19.2 pounds) and is 79.2 cm (31.2 inches) long. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)

Over the years, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian bore four surviving cubs amid several losses. Starting with Tai Shan, born in 2005, the cubs became the first ever to grow up at the National Zoo after decades of dashed hopes.

One after another, the roly-poly babies delighted visitors and Panda Cam viewers with their antics.

Getty Images
L-R: Tai Shan; Bao Bao; Bei Bei

There was plenty of heartbreak along the way.

When Tai Shan was born in 2005, D.C. went wild for the cub who would become known as "Butterstick," nicknamed for the tiny size of a panda cub at birth.

But the next seven years ticked by with no more cubs, despite the efforts of keepers and vets. A new cub arrived to much excitement in 2012, only to die a week later.

The following year, another baby arrived, along with a stillborn twin. The living cub, Bao Bao, survived and thrived. And two years after that, twin cubs were born. While one did not survive; the other, Bei Bei, would go on to delight panda fans once more.

Previous panda departures

All three of Tian Tian and Mei Xiang's oldest offspring moved to China when they were a few years old.

Tai Shan took his flight in 2010, to much fanfare and sadness from District residents.

Bao Bao, his younger sister, traveled to China in 2017 and settled into her new home quickly, according to the Associated Press.

"True to her character, Bao Bao was very independent and began taking food from her new keeper immediately," a Smithsonian zookeeper who traveled with her to China said at the time.

In China, Bao Bao has since had cubs of her own.

Bei Bei moved to China in 2019, landing safely after a 16-hour direct flight, complete with road snacks in the form of bamboo, apples, sweet potatoes, leaf eater biscuits and water.

Why are the pandas leaving now?

The short answer is that this year is simply the expiration date for the research agreement contract between the U.S. and China. But the long answer is a little more complicated than that.

The pandas are leaving D.C. at a time when, according to the Associated Press, there's a larger trend of China pulling back its pandas from multiple western zoos as their agreements expire. It's happening as diplomatic tensions run high between Beijing and a number of western governments.

National Zoo officials have remained tightlipped about the prospects of renewing or extending the agreement, and repeated attempts by News4 and the Associated Press for comment on the state of the negotiations did not receive a response.

Dennis Wilder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues, called the trend “punitive panda diplomacy" when talking to the AP. He noted that two other American zoos have lost their pandas in recent years, while zoos in Scotland and Australia are facing similar departures with no signs of their loan agreements being renewed.

Despite the links to U.S.-China diplomacy, the negotiations are researcher-to-researcher and not based in politics, Smith, the National Zoo's director, told News4 back in August.

"We're a bunch of scientists; we're a bunch of animal people," Smith said. "This is not a political conversation. This is absolutely a conversation between colleagues talking about, what's best for the overall program, and also, what can be best for individual animals?"

While the zoo won't be quite the same without our giant friends to roll around eating bamboo, at least we have Basil to console us.

A new life in China

Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji's ultimate destination is the China Wildlife Conservation Association.

It's basically "a panda base, if you will," according to Bryan Amaral, senior curator at the National Zoo.

"It's a place where they have lots and lots of giant pandas, very similar to what you would see — how our giant pandas live here, very similar to that," Amaral said. "They just have a lot more giant pandas than we have. Where we have elephants and, you know, all kinds of other things, they have just pandas."

The Associated Press and Carissa DiMargo contributed to this report.

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