The animals, Mei Xiang, 25, Tian Tian, 26, and their son, Xiao Qi Ji, 3, are scheduled to be in three separate shipping containers aboard a massive Boeing 777 cargo plane from FedEx decorated with a huge giant panda logo. They will leave by Nov. 15, zoo officials said Wednesday.
Because Russian airspace is closed to U.S. carriers as a result of the Ukraine war, officials said, the plane will take a route over the Pacific Ocean that adds about five hours, 500 miles and a refueling stop to the trip. In alaska. FedEx said the three previous panda flights from Washington to China took a shorter, nonstop route across the Atlantic.
It will be the end of a glorious 51-year era in Washington that dates back to 1972, when China gave the Smithsonian’s National Zoo its first two giant pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, at the height of the Cold War rivalry. . United States and China.
Since then, the zoo’s giant pandas have come and gone, born and died. Generations of visitors have delighted in their antics. Some have become obsessed. Now the black and white bears are about to leave the city without giant pandas for the first time in 23 years, and probably for the foreseeable future.
“It’s an emotional moment here,” Nicole MacCorkle, a keeper who has helped care for giant pandas at the zoo for 22 years, said in a phone interview last week. “We’re just trying to soak up all the moments and really appreciate how special they are and just spend that quality time.”
Planned on the departure flight are panda keepers Laurie Thompson and Mariel Lally and zoo veterinarian James Steeil.
Two of the shipping containers have already been delivered to the zoo, MacCorkle said. The third will not arrive until the day of departure.
Amaral said the first two containers were delivered well before departure so the animals had time to get used to them.
“We receive the shipping containers before shipping and we actually train the pandas to go into them,” Amaral said. “So they feel comfortable with the spaces before shipping day.”
Tian Tian and Mei Xiang have already scouted them, MacCorkle said. At first, the keepers leave both sides of the containers open and the pandas walk through them to get to know each other.
“Pandas are quite remarkable,” Amaral said. “They are pretty calm, so it doesn’t take them long” to get used to the containers.
The pandas are rewarded with treats when they enter the boxes, Amaral said. “We make it a positive place, so when they go into the boxes, that’s when good things happen,” he said.
Once on board the plane, keepers can keep an eye on the pandas and feed them bamboo and other treats. “Just like the beverage cart that goes up and down the aisle,” she said.
Tian Tian, who was born in China in 1997, weighs 271 pounds. Mei Xiang, who was born in China in 1998, weighs 246 pounds. Xiao Qi Ji was born at the National Zoo in 2020 and weighs 200 pounds.
The zoo has not provided an exact departure date, but says the date will be announced 48 hours in advance.
Once in China, the bears will have to adapt to their new home. “Obviously, there are a lot of things that are going to change,” Amaral said. “Their caregivers are going to change.”
The pandas are trained to respond to certain prompts in English, Amaral said, and will have to learn “a little bit” of Chinese.
“For them, language doesn’t really matter,” he said. “We can train a new behavior and train it in Chinese. They don’t know it’s not English. “First of all, they don’t know he was English.”
The current giant panda leasing agreement with China expires on December 7. China owns all the giant pandas in American zoos and requires that cubs born in the United States be sent to China before they are 4 years old.
“We do this all the time,” Amaral said. “We are very good at this, moving animals.”
In 2010, the male cub Tai Shan was sent from the zoo to China. In 2017, he was followed by the puppy Bao Bao; Two years later, the male cub Bei Bei also traveled to China. FedEx has handled all three shipments and donated its services.
“I’m sad,” Amaral said of the departure. “What saddens me the most is the people who have been taking care of these boys for so many years. … I am sad for panda fans in DC and around the world.”
“But this was inevitable,” he said. “We knew this was going to happen from the day the agreement was signed in 2000.”
He added: “I’m very happy to have had the time we have had with these pandas.”