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February 5, 2010

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Sadness in US as two born in America head for panda home

THE time has come for two American-born giant pandas to go home to their species' native land.

Three-year-old Mei Lan of Atlanta and 4 1/2-year-old Tai Shan of Washington, DC flew to new homes yesterday in southwest China's Sichuan Province to become part of a panda breeding program.

It's a day American panda lovers have been dreading.

"He's our success story," 37-year-old panda fan Deanna Williston said of Tai Shan.

During a visit on Wednesday to the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, she recalled how her family and friends tracked his growth from the size of a stick of butter to nearly 90 kilograms.

She knitted a panda hat based on Tai Shan's picture and wears it for good luck when there might be another panda pregnancy.

"We got to see him as a cub, sitting in a tiny bucket," she said, overlooking the zoo's panda yard where Tai Shan snacked in the snow and climbed a tree.

Pandas have a long, symbolic history in Washington. The first panda couple, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, arrived in 1972 as a gift to the American people from China after President Richard Nixon's historic visit.

The pair lived more than 20 years at the zoo and produced five cubs, but none survived.

That's partly why Tai Shan, the first cub to grow up in the US capital, is so adored.

"All the other pandas we've borrowed from China, but he's ours," said Amanda Parson, 30, who left home in neighboring Maryland at 6:15am to visit the zoo for Tai Shan's last day on view.

The zoo's two remaining pandas, mother Mei Xiang and father Tian Tian, are on a 10-year, US$10 million loan until December.

Tai Shan gave his mother a few sniffs on Wednesday through a fenced window between their separate yards.

For keeper Nicole Meese, his departure is personal. She held him as a baby and spent late nights calling him when he learned to climb trees but wouldn't come down.

"Every day, he makes me smile," said Meese, who will travel to China with the pandas aboard their own jet. "I'm going to miss him terribly."

To help ease the transition from English to Chinese, Meese trained Tai Shan with hand signals.

She has spent weeks putting together a photo booklet of the signals for his new keepers at Bifengxia Panda Base in Sichuan.

Chinese zookeepers are advertising for a tutor to provide the panda language lessons for Mei Lan.

The female panda was the first cub born at Zoo Atlanta. Her arrival in 2006 brought thousands more visitors to the zoo and millions of clicks to an online panda cam.

Since then, her parents, Lun Lun and Yang Yang, had another cub - Xi Lan - a male born in 2008.

Mei Lan left Atlanta yesterday for Washington and joined Tai Shan to travel to China in a Boeing 777 freighter with a panda painted on the side.


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