50th panda anniversary celebration at the National Zoo

Placeholder while article actions load

Michael Bzdil, 8, peered over the fence that lined the habitat at the National Zoo in the Woodley Park neighborhood of Northwest Washington. He watched as pandas crawled out of the gate toward the large fruitcake that was set out for them on Saturday.

“It says 50,” Michael said, pointing to one of the cakes. “You know why?” his mother, Mavourneen Bzdil, asked. Michael shook his head. “Because it has been 50 years since the pandas have lived here.”

Saturday officially marked the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the first giant pandas at the National Zoo as a gift from the Chinese government on April 16, 1972. Since then, millions of people from across the country have flocked to the District to see the black and white bears.

Bryan Amaral, senior curator of mammals at the National Zoo, said it is a destination spot for tourists, but specifically for “panda lovers,” since it is one of the three zoos in the United States where giant pandas reside. The others live at Zoo Atlanta and the Memphis Zoo. Under an agreement between China and the United States, cubs born in captivity at the National Zoo are sent to China before the age of four.

“This the first place I have ever worked that has ever had pandas,” said Amaral, who has had the job for five years. “There was definitely a learning curve and adjustment to exactly how gaga people are over pandas.”

The cake was filled with true Washington “pandamania.” The crowd kept their eyes centered on the three pandas living at the zoo: Xiao Qi Ji, a 1-year-old male, Mei Xiang, a 23-year-old female, and Tian Tian, ​​a 24-year-old male. The zoo has hosted other pandas over the years, like Mei Xiang and Tian Tian’s other children, Bao Bao and Bei Bei.

Some of the attendees have been following the lives of the beloved animals throughout the pandemic on the giant panda cam, the most popular webcam at the zoo. Over 4.2 million users have watched the live stream since the birth of Xiao Qi Ji on Aug. 21, 2020.

Pandas came to the zoo years ago and changed the city forever

Sara Cureton started watching the cub when he was born via the live stream from her home in New Jersey. She drove five hours to attend the celebration. “Luckily I have watched some of these wonderful panda celebrations that the zoo puts on virtually from home, so I have seen these great cakes for them,” Cureton, 63, said. “But I have never been here in person to see the pandas enjoy them. It was just as wonderful as I hoped.”

The “pandaversary” cakes were prepared from frozen diluted apple and pineapple juices, sugar cane, and rehydrated powdered carrots and sweet potatoes. They were decorated with apples, pears, bananas, carrots and sweet potatoes. Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang and National Zoo director Brandie Smith added the finishing touches of bamboo.

There were also treats for humans. The Chinese embassy brought special bao buns with a panda face to hand out to visitors as they came through. Both Qin and Smith shared in opening remarks that the program at the zoo was evidence of successful conservation efforts between China and the United States to preserve the global giant panda population.

“People will ask me if giant pandas get too much attention,” Smith said in an interview after the celebration. “The reality is this is what it takes to save an endangered species. You need not just people in one country to appreciate the animal, but you need people around the world to be.”

The crowd cheered as one of the pandas knocked over the zero atop the cake. Many donated themed gear with panda shirts, panda masks and panda hats.

Here is some advice when you visit the pandas at the National Zoo

Michael was not wearing any themed attire, but he noted he had multiple stuffed pandas at home. His favorite one is the biggest one, he explained, named Bao Bao, in honor of the panda who lived at the zoo until 2017. Both he and Bao Bao were born in 2013, a happy coincidence that launched his love for pandas. He got up “a whole lot early” to make it in time for the celebration since the Bzdils live in Maryland, but it was worth it to see them, he said.

Everley Greenwell, 5, and Lorelai Greenwell, 6, chose to bring their mini cameras so they could capture photos of the pandas moving around the zoo. Everley said her favorite part was seeing the pandas play together. Lorelai liked seeing the pandas eat the cake.

They both knew it was a special day. Their mother, Kayleigh Greenwall, leaned down to ask, “What was today called?” Everley swiftly replied, “Panda day!”

Leave a Comment