WASHINGTON — The National Zoo is packing up its American-born panda cub Bao Bao for a one-way flight to China, where the 3-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 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 and 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 5 and 6 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.
With Bao Bao's departure, the National Zoo will have three remaining pandas. The zoo's two adult pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, arrived on loan in 2000 but belong to China, as do any cubs they have. The pair's first cub, Tai Shan, returned to China in 2010. Their third cub, Bao Bao's younger brother Bei Bei, was born in 2015 and will remain at the zoo for now.
A total of four U.S. zoos have pandas that are on loan from China. Pandas born in the United States return to China, generally by age 4. With Bao Bao's departure, there will be a dozen pandas remaining in the United States: four in Atlanta, three in Washington, three in San Diego and two in Memphis, Tennessee.
The National Zoo and Washington residents have a special relationship with the creatures, however. The zoo's first pair of pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, were a gift from China and arrived at the zoo in 1972 following President Richard Nixon's historic visit to the country. The pair had five cubs while living at the zoo, but none survived. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are the zoo's second panda pair.