For the first time since her birth inside Zoo Atlanta in 2006, Mei Lan is outside the Grant Park habitat, and up in the air.
Atlanta’s famous panda flies today to Washington, D.C., where she’ll be joined by her cousin, National Zoo panda Tai Shan. They’ll fly to China together on a direct 14-hour FedEx Express flight.
Zoo Atlanta officials said Mei Lan is a calm, laid-back bear they don’t expect to stress much over travel, or even her new surroundings. She had a normal night at Zoo Atlanta on Wednesday, but knew something was up this morning when keepers arrived two hours early. She noshed on a breakfast of bamboo and leafeater treats, then went into her crate about 5:40 a.m. with no problems. Her reward: sugar cane, her favorite food.
After a caravan to the airport and a ride past dozens of waiting photographers, Mei Lan was lifted into the 777 Freighter emblazoned with panda logos. Shortly after 8 a.m., the door was closed, the plane taxied and the flight took off.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed agreed it was fine to be “reflective, or even wistful” about Mei Lan’s departure, but important, too, to remember that she’s a healthy member of an endangered species, and by moving to China, she can help her kind survive. (Reed’s advice to her: “be fruitful and multiply.”) Scientists estimate there are about 1,600 Giant Pandas in the wild. About 300 live in captivity, mostly in China.
Three of them still live at Zoo Atlanta. Boy cub Xi Lan should be weaned toward the end of March and will transition to a solitary enclosure, like other adolescent and adult pandas. Come spring, Zoo Atlanta officials expect Lun Lun and Yang Yang, Mei Lan and Xi Lan’s parents, to try for another cub.
Want to go? Zoo Atlanta. 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. $13.99-$18.99, free for kids younger than 2. 800 Cherokee Ave. inside Grant Park, Atlanta. 404-624-9453, www.zooatlanta.org.
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