Bei Bei plays, the crowds keep com­ing to Na­tional Zoo

The Enquire-Gazette - - News - By AUBURN MANN Cap­i­tal News Ser­vice

WASH­ING­TON — The Na­tional Zoo con­tin­ues to re­ceive large crowds in re­sponse to the new­est mem­ber of its mar­quee ex­hibit: Bei Bei, the gi­ant panda cub.

The zoo has seen more than 346,000 vis­i­tors since the Jan­uary un­veil­ing of the sur­viv­ing twin of mother Mei Xiang and fa­ther Tian Tian, ac­cord­ing to the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Zoo­log­i­cal Park.

Eighty per­cent of the Na­tional Zoo’s 2.3 mil­lion an­nual vis­i­tors visit the David M. Ruben­stein Fam­ily Gi­ant Panda Habi­tat, which is the cen­ter­piece of the park’s Asia Trail.

There are slightly more than 1,600 pan­das re­main­ing in the world, with al­most a quar­ter of them re­sid­ing in zoos and preser­va­tion fa­cil­i­ties, ac­cord­ing to the Smith­so­nian. The an­i­mals are na­tive to the moun­tain rang- es of Cen­tral China. How­ever, due to con­tin­ued de­for­esta­tion and other hu­man in­dus­trial ac­tiv­i­ties, the species is en­dan­gered.

Even among zoos, gi­ant pan­das are a rar­ity. The Na­tional Zoo is one of only four in the United States to fea­ture the species. This scarcity only con­trib­utes to the pan­das al­lure.

“The fact that we are one of the only zoos in the coun­try to of­fer gi­ant pan­das def­i­nitely helps with our pop­u­lar­ity,” said zoo spokesman Devon Mur­phy.

A group of eighth-graders from Sea­side and Los Ar­boles Mid­dle Schools in Mon­terey County, Calif., were part of a sea of tourists re­cently. The stu­dents made the trip across the coun­try es­pe­cially to see Bei Bei and the other gi­ant pan­das.

“I looked for­ward to see­ing the pan­das, that was the most ex­cit­ing part,” said eighth-grader Oak­ley Pel­ton.

“It was so cute and cud­dly, I wanted to take it home,” said her class­mate, Amaya Valen­zuela, whose arms were wrapped around a stuffed panda sou­venir she pur­chased at the nearby gift shop.

The ir­re­sistible ap­peal of pan­das has a sci­en­tific ex­pla­na­tion, ac­cord­ing to Dr. Si­mon Rego, di­rec­tor of psy­chol­ogy train­ing at Mon­te­fiore Med­i­cal Cen­ter, Al­bert Ein­stein Col­lege of Medicine in New York. It’s all about evo­lu­tion, he said. “The lead­ing the­ory sug­gests that we tend to find most ap­peal­ing the an­i­mals that have char­ac­ter­is­tics — a large head and eyes, small nose and mouth, pro­trud­ing cheeks and fore­head, etcetera — that are sim­i­lar to our own in­fants,” Rego said. “We are bi­o­log­i­cally pro­grammed to re­spond to with a nur­tur­ing re­ac­tion. This au­to­matic re­ac­tion is hy­poth­e­sized to be so pow­er­ful that it can be ac­ti­vated by other species with sim­i­lar traits.”

Those who can’t make it to the Na­tional Zoo can fol­low the ac­tiv­i­ties of Bei Bei and his fam­ily through the zoo’s we­b­cam, which pro­vides live stream footage of the an­i­mals.

“The Na­tional Zoo is con­duct­ing a be­hav­ioral study on panda devel­op­ment for the first few months of Bei Bei’s devel­op­ment,” the zoo’s Mur­phy ex­plained.

There are two cam­eras in the habi­tat, with one al­ways on Bei Bei and Mei Xiang.

“We want to mon­i­tor how much time they spend to­gether and away from each other, how close they get, how and when they com­mu­ni­cate,” Mur­phy said.

Bei Bei, whose name means “pre­cious trea­sure” in Man­darin, was named by both First Ladies Michelle Obama and Peng Liyuan of China last Septem­ber when China’s first fam­ily came for a state visit.

The pres­ence of gi­ant pan­das in Wash­ing­ton is rooted in in­ter­na­tional diplo­macy.

Orig­i­nally given to the United States as a good­will ges­ture from China dur­ing the restora­tion of re­la­tions be­tween the two na­tions in the early 1970s, the cur­rent fam­ily of gi­ant pan­das re­main here on long-term loan.

After ne­go­ti­a­tions, the lease on Tian Tian and Mei Xiang re­cently was ex­tended un­til 2020. Any of the pair’s off­spring are re­quired to be sent to China upon reach­ing age four.

Bei Bei is sched­uled to be sent to China in 2019 to join his older sib­lings, Bao Bao (who is sched­uled for re­lo­ca­tion from Wash­ing­ton when she turns four years old in 2017) and Tai Shan, who cur­rently re­sides at the Du­jiangyan Panda Base.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.