UPDATE 2/5: Mei Lan and Tai Shan have arrived in China, to “live TV coverage and a passionate crowd.”
If you thought that Mei Lan’s departure for China meant the end of our panda stories, welllllllll, well, you were wrong. We can do this forever.
5 p.m. Feb. 3. A Zoo Atlanta comes up behind a group of onlookers.
“I just wanna let you know, time to close it up.”
The visitors don’t disperse, don’t even turn around. They just huddle closer to the outdoor panda habitat.
Lun Lun and Yang Yang, the zoo’s famous panda parents, are already in for the night. So is boy cub Xi Lan, just weeks away from being weened from his mother. Mei Lan, Atlanta’s first panda cub, has been chewing on bamboo for hours, and knows it’s almost her turn. The 3-year-old waits by the sliding door till it’s open enough for her to walk through and for it to slam shut behind her.
Her fans sigh and turn off their cameras. Most of the Mei Lan merchandise is gone from the gift shop. The banners with her name are already coming down. The zoo is about to close. They are the last visitors to see her in the place where she was born, the last few to say good-bye before she leaves for China.
7:30 a.m. Feb. 4. A door lifts near a FedEx plane at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and Mei Lan’s vehicle is towed past a waiting line of photographers and reporters. She tumbles and paces inside the box, looking through her window at the crowds gathered in the dark. After a normal night at the zoo, her keepers arrived two hours early with a breakfast of bamboo and biscuits. They coaxed her into the metal-and-plastic crate she’d been trained on the past few weeks, and rewarded her with sugar cane, her favorite food.
A caravan to the airport deposited her here, on a lift to be fed into the mouth of a FedEx Express 777 Freighter, a 209 1/2-foot plane that would take her to Washington, D.C. to pick up her male cousin, Tai Shan, a panda from the National Zoo. The plane continued on from Washington for 15 hours to Chengdu, China, where Mei Lan will live at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Tai Shan will go on to the Bifengxia Panda Base outside the city of Ya’an.
They’re traveling with water, bamboo and keepers who know them. Mei Lan will need to learn Chinese commands, and nature’s lesson about what happens when boy and girl pandas come together for a few days. Dr. Rebecca Snyder, Zoo Atlanta’s curator of giant panda research and management, said Mei Lan’s parents handled their 1999 trip to Atlanta well, and she expects the same from this goofy, laid-back bear.
Mei Lan, who has never seen earth or sky outside Zoo Atlanta, will have a “beautiful,” facility, Snyder said, one larger than what Grant Park could offer, and with the chance to help her endangered species survive. There are about 1,600 giant pandas in the wild and about 300 in captive breeding facilities worldwide. In the spring, Zoo Atlanta expects its panda parents to try for another cub.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told the crowd at the airport it was OK to be “reflective, or even wistful” about Mei Lan’s departure, but mostly happy for panda conservation. His advice for her: “be fruitful and multiply.”
By then, though, the door on the “absolutely, positively panda”-decorated plane was closed. It pulled away from the building and shortly after 8 a.m., Mei Lan was in the air, the waves and cheers of Zoo Atlanta staff trailing behind her.
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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