WASHINGTON – They were treated like pop idols – except for being stuck in travel crates.
Adoring crowds and television viewers watched Thursday as American-born giant pandas Mei Lan and Tai Shan were loaded onto a special cargo jet for a flight to their new homes in China for breeding.
Normally placid, 3-year-old Mei Lan from Zoo Atlanta whirled and paced in her crate as flashbulbs popped. Tai Shan, a 4 1/2 -year-old born in Washington, hid at first but was drawn into view as his keepers at the National Zoo knelt silently at his crate to say goodbye, feeding him slices of apples and pears.
China lent Tai Shan’s and Mei Lan’s parents to U.S. zoos for conservation, and now they will become part of a breeding program in their endangered species’ native land. About 1,600 giant pandas live in the wild, and another 290 are in captive-breeding programs worldwide, mainly in China.