Next week Bao Bao, the youngest female panda at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., will move to China, part of a deal between the zoo and the Chinese government.
China first sent two giant pandas to the National Zoo in 1972. In 2000, China loaned Bao Bao’s parents to the U.S. It was agreed their cubs would return to China by the time they turned 4.
Now, at age 3 and a half, it’s time for Bao Bao to join other pandas at a breeding facility in China.
Bao Bao has been a major attraction at the zoo since she was born, when she was the size of a stick of butter. Now at a svelte 205 pounds, she is preparing for her big move.
Over the last few weeks Bao Bao has been getting used to the crate that will take her to China.
“By giving her honey water while she’s sitting in the crate, it just continues to build this space as somewhere she wants to be,” Bao Bao’s trainer, Marty Dearie, who will be traveling with her, told CBS News correspondent Chip Reid.
“I’m someone that she knows really well. So if she gets nervous or she’s looking for something to do, I’m going to be that person.”
Dearie has been building a relationship with Bao Bao since her first days. He witnessed her birth. He was there for her first checkup as a squealing and squirmy little cub, and the days of tumbling in the snow and chomping on bamboo.
But now Dearie will have to teach her new trainers in China how to interact with her. “I will be able to help her with that transition from her life here in America to her new life in China,” he said.
Bao Bao has learned a number of cues -- both hand signals and verbal cues -- but of course now she’s going to have to learn those same cues in Chinese.
Bao Bao isn’t the first panda the zoo has raised and then let go; her brother Tai Shan returned to China in 2010. Like Bao Bao, he was flown in a crate, on a flight provided by FedEx.
The 16-hour flight will be direct from Washington to Chengdu, China, and there will be an in-flight service of 55 pounds of bamboo, two pounds of apples and pears, two sweet potatoes, and 10 gallons of water.
Brandie Smith, the associate director for animal care sciences at the National Zoo, said she’s been thinking back to when Bao Bao was little.
“Sounds like you’re talking about your child,” Reid said.
“It is! She actually reminds me a lot of my daughter. She’s very independent!”
Smith said that since Bao Bao’s separation from her mother Mei Xiang in 2015, she has become more solitary.
“They don’t actually like to see each other right now,” Smith said. “And it’s OK. Mothers and daughters don’t always get along.”
Mei Xiang has another cub, Bei Bei, that now keeps her occupied. That means Bao Bao, all grown up, will hopefully be having her own cub soon.
“I think it’s like your kids going off to college,” Smith said. “It’s a hard thing to do, we’re a little bit sad, we’re a lot worried, but in the end we know it’s the right thing to do, and it’s the best thing for her”
But she doesn’t leave until February 21, so there’s still time to come on down to the zoo and say bye-bye to Bao Bao.
- Saving the giant pandas (“Sunday Morning”)
For more info: