WASHINGTON – The National Zoo is packing up its American-born panda cub Bao Bao for a one-way flight to China, where the three-year-old will eventually join a panda breeding program.
The cub won't have to worry about finding overhead bin space or dealing with a talkative seatmate on the 16-hour, nonstop flight Tuesday afternoon into Wednesday. She'll be the only panda on the plane, traveling with a keeper and a veterinarian. Her accommodations are first class, too: a special metal crate the size of a double bed that she can stretch out in. A sticker on its outside announces its contents: "one panda."
In preparation for the trip, keepers have a packing list of Bao Bao's favorite foods, including 55 pounds of bamboo, 5 pounds of apples and 2 pounds of sweet potatoes.
"Most of the flight, we hope she's going to eat," said panda keeper Marty Dearie, who will travel with Bao Bao to China. She says pandas spend 13 to 16 hours a day eating.
Bao Bao is scheduled to depart the zoo Tuesday morning and travel to Washington Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia, where she'll board a special FedEx plane. Fans will be able to watch her departure from the zoo and airport on the zoo's Facebook page.
Once Bao Bao arrives in Chengdu, China, she'll be driven to her new home, one of the bases run by the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda. Dearie will briefly remain with her while she gets adjusted. In time, when she reaches sexual maturity, between five and six years old, she'll become part of a panda breeding program. The National Zoo says Bao Bao is traveling now because it's better for pandas to travel in the winter months when it is cool.
Bao Bao delighted the zoo and panda fans when she was born Aug. 23, 2013. Her mother, Mei Xiang, gave birth to her first cub, Tai Shan, in 2005, but then failed to get pregnant for years. Then, a cub born in 2012 didn't survive.
Brandie Smith, the zoo's associate director of animal care sciences, said that when Bao Bao was born a year later she remembers "five minutes of pure joy" followed by "weeks of sleeplessness and worry."
Since then, Bao Bao, whose name means "precious treasure" in Chinese, has grown from about the size of a stick of butter to more than 200 pounds. Her keepers describe her personality as "very independent," sort of like a household cat.
Laurie Thompson, the assistant curator of giant pandas, said keepers have been preparing Bao Bao to leave for China since she was born, teaching her behaviors that will allow her Chinese keepers to do things like draw blood and perform ultrasounds. Thompson said Bao Bao's departure is "definitely bittersweet," but her keepers know she's ready to leave.
"We're ready. We've done our part, and we're ready to send her to China so she can have her own babies someday," Thompson said.