There were tears, lingering goodbyes and broken hearts Wednesday at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
Under police escort and accompanied by their longtime keepers, Washington’s three giant pandas boarded a flight to China on Wednesday. Their departure marked the end of an era that spanned half a century, brought joy to millions and left an enduring black-and-white imprint on the D.C. region.
Mei Xiang, 25, a female; Tian Tian, 26, a male; and their son, Xiao Qi Ji, 3, were loaded into three large shipping crates on Wednesday morning and driven by trucks to Dulles International Airport to embark on a 19-hour, 9,000-mile journey on a FedEx cargo jet to Chengdu, China.
The morning began with the zoo bustling with preparations. As the sun rose, staffers were already loading stacks of bamboo onto three large FedEx trucks to keep the pandas happily munching on their way to the airport. A growing media scrum formed near the enclosure to chronicle their historic departure. A podium was set up for speeches from zoo officials and Chinese government dignitaries to mark the occasion.
The mother bear, Mei Xiang, was the first taken out of the enclosure. Her crate was carried by a forklift to one of the three waiting trucks. Staff from the zoo walked solemnly beside her crate. A longtime panda keeper, Nicole MacCorkle, kept her hand by a small window on the crate as if to reassure Mei Xiang, whose furry face could be seen assessing the situation.
The adult male, Tian Tian, went next. MacCorkle wiped away tears as she walked back from his truck. Their cub, Xiao Qi Ji, was last to go.
Meanwhile, zookeepers Laurie Thompson and Mariel Lally – who were traveling with the pandas to China – made their own last-minute preparations, lugging a roller suitcase and large duffle bag through the zoo. Zoo Director Brandie Smith sighed as she addressed the media in brief remarks. “Everybody has been asking me how I feel,” she said. “This is a hard morning.”
But the zoo is proud of its panda conservation efforts, Smith said, and hopes to someday have giant pandas again. “The future is bright for giant pandas,” she said.
It is the fourth time members of the zoo’s giant panda family have departed for China. But before this journey, there had always been giant pandas who stayed behind when the others left.
During their half-century in Washington, the bears had become ubiquitous and iconic symbols of city, alongside the White House and the Capitol.
Their images appeared on buses, Metro cards, sneakers, shirts, slippers, pajamas, onesies, mugs, water bottles, totes, scarves, scrunchies and hats. They had legions of passionate followers. In 2001, composer Julius P. Williams wrote an orchestral piece for them, “March of the Giant Pandas.”
“We knew that this day would come,” MacCorkle said in a recent interview. “It’ll take us a while, but life will go on here at the zoo. It’ll be a void that all of us will feel, and I think all of Washington’s going to feel.”
China owns and leases all giant pandas in U.S. zoos. The National Zoo’s current lease expires on Dec. 7. In the past four years, pandas in San Diego and Memphis have made similar return journeys to China. With Washington’s bears now gone, the only pandas remaining in the United States will be four in Atlanta, scheduled to depart for China next year.
The exit of all pandas from the United States comes at a moment of strained U.S.-China relations. Experts believe China’s decision not to renew or sign new leases with U.S. zoos is a reflection of the current tensions in the two countries’ complicated diplomatic relationship.
And now, after 51 years, the panda compound in Northwest Washington is empty, and the joyous decades of pandamania are over, at least for the time being.
The zoo was closed for part of Wednesday morning to facilitate the pandas’ departure. For security reasons, the exact date of the departure wasn’t released earlier, officials said, so many panda fans were caught off-guard.
Mac and Joyce Wetherington of Wilson, N.C., were among the first to discover the pandas suddenly missing. They had taken their grandchildren Dixon, 6, and Mackenzie, 8, out of school to visit the pandas at the zoo, only to discover the bears had left an hour earlier.
Joyce choked up as she spoke. “We were going to come yesterday, but we had a schedule change and we couldn’t make it,” she said. “We drove yesterday so we could be here today.”
She was miffed at the idea that geopolitical tensions may have contributed the sudden departure of the cute bears. “It’s really sad that they use the pandas as pawns in that chess game,” she said.
Next to her, Joyce’s granddaughter tried to stifle her disappointment. “My nana said they were going to leave in two weeks,” Mackenzie said. “We just got here.”
By midmorning, the trucks ferrying the bears had arrived at a FedEx facility outside Dulles. Zoo staff exited their vehicles and followed the three pandas.
Reporters and news cameras stood on the tarmac, where a FedEx Express Boeing 777 Freighter plane waited to take off with the pandas. With their departure kept secret until the day of, few panda fans were on hand to see them off. A handful went to the parking lot near the airport’s tarmac to try catch one last glimpse, authorities said, but were sent away.
Captain Ron Zampini, a 777 chief pilot, said it would be his first time flying with pandas on board. Zampini, who has worked for FedEx for 29 years, said he was hoping for smooth air to soothe the animal passengers.
The plane is often used for ultra-long-haul routes. Because Russian airspace is closed to American carriers as a result of the Ukraine war, officials have said, the plane will take a route over the Pacific Ocean that adds about five hours, 500 miles and a refueling stop in Alaska to the trip. The three previous panda flights from Washington to China took a shorter, nonstop route across the Atlantic. Zampini said there will be three pilots on board, and a crew change will occur when the plane lands in Alaska.
Asked if he would take a peek at his celebrity passengers, Zampini said, “Sure, I would like to see them, and I am a huge fan of pandas. But I don’t anticipate getting out of my seat and hanging back there.”
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian were born in China. They came to the zoo as youngsters, arriving on Dec. 6, 2000, as part of a lease agreement. Xiao Qi Ji was born at the zoo on Aug. 21, 2020.
The staff at the Smithsonian facility has been preparing for the departure for months. Two keepers and one veterinarian are also making the trip, along with around 220 pounds of bamboo serving as in-flight snacks.
The animals have been acclimated to the traveling crates, zoo officials said. And keepers do not expect the pandas to be distressed during the flight.
Members of the zoo staff, however, have expressed heartache over the loss. Several keepers have cared for the giant pandas for many years.
Thompson, the zoo’s longest-serving giant panda keeper, was present when Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived 23 years ago. She was one of the staff members flying with the pandas to ease their journey. “We’re mostly there to keep them happy,” she said.
“It’s definitely a hard time,” Bob Lee, the zoo’s director of animal care sciences, said last month. “These animals are like family to us and the folks that come here.”
The zoo’s giant panda story began in February 1972, when President Richard M. Nixon and first lady Pat Nixon made a historic Cold War visit to communist China.
At a banquet in Beijing, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai promised Mrs. Nixon that China would give some giant pandas to the United States as a friendly gesture.
Later that year, giant pandas Ling-Ling, a female, and Hsing-Hsing, a male, both about 18 months old, arrived at the zoo.
Ling-Ling died suddenly in 1992, and an ailing Hsing-Hsing was euthanized in November 1999. The zoo was then without giant pandas until December 2000 – a gap of just over a year.
Aside from Xiao Qi Ji, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian produced three surviving cubs.
A male, Tai Shan, was born in 2005 and sent to China in 2010. A female, Bao Bao, was born in 2013 and sent to China in 2017. A male, Bei Bei, was born in 2015 and sent to China in 2019.
It is not clear when, or if, the zoo will get giant pandas again. The zoo in San Diego sent its giant pandas to China in 2019. They have not been replaced since.
“To have had them here for almost 23 years, and to interact with them almost daily, it certainly is going to be a change,” said MacCorkle, a longtime panda keeper. “It’s going to be life-changing for us that had been working with them.”
Around noon at the airport, a truck carrying the pandas slowly drove up to the waiting freight plane. The crate carrying the panda cub and then his father’s crate were lifted up and into the plane.
“Bye, pandas!” shouted someone in the crowd of reporters, a few members of Congress and other dignitaries. A second vehicle, carrying Mei Xiang and a box of bamboo, soon followed. At one point, as she was being transferred to the plane, Mei Xiang pressed her face up against the glass with an expression that looked like concern. The scrum of reporters around the plane let out a collective “aww.”
At 12:50 p.m., the plane lifted off the ground. Several onlookers lowered their cameras and began to clap.
By Wednesday afternoon, barriers were already in place at the zoo’s entrance to the panda exhibit. “It’s going to be quiet for a while,” said a worker as he moved in place dividers to bar visitors from the now-empty panda enclosure.
Outside the exhibit, the sign read: “Thanks for your support and interest… . Our three giant pandas are now living in China.