But it's a bittersweet third birthday for Hua Mei the panda and the team that has taken care of her since she was born. In just a few short months, she'll be moving to China, leaving many broken hearts behind.
Dr. Don Lindberg is the Giant Pandas team leader at the San Diego Zoo, and has been caring for Hua Mei since she was born in August 21, 1999. He explains that Hua Mei's move was not a surprise to most. Under an agreement that brought her parents to the United States from China in 1996 for a 12-year-loan, the United States pledged to China that any offspring from the union of Bai Yun and and Shi Shi (Hua Mei's mother and father) will be sent to China when they reach three years of age.
Hua Mei is the only panda born in the United States to live past four days. Today, she is pushing 200 pounds — just 30 pounds less than her father, Shi Shi.
Dr. Lindberg notes that there is no material payoff for the United States in caring for and tending to the pandas brought over from China. In fact, it almost seems to be a win/win situation for the Chinese overall. But Lindburg sees past the material aspect. "We've had this pair for six years," Lindburg says. "We have to pay a million dollars a year to have them here, and we don't get to keep any offspring born here in America. They are the property of the Chinese government, and as such, must be sent back to China."
Dr. Lindburg says that although he'll be sad to see Hua Mei leave, she wouldn't really have a future in the United States if she stayed. She says there's no mate for Hua Mei here. She's approaching her sexual maturity, and the only chance she has of reproducing is with male pandas in China.
Fast Facts on Hua Mei And Pandas
- Hua Mei was conceived through artificial insemination, and is the only panda born in the U.S. to survive past four days of life.
- Hua Mei will be sent to China to live out the rest of her days at the same nature reserve where her mother and father were born.
- The panda is somewhat of a medical miracle; she was born completely healthy, has never been sick, and has grown vigorously over the past 3 years.
- Giant Pandas are an endangered species. It's estimated that fewer than 1,000 survive in the wild
- Last year, about 12 pandas were born in China.
- Doctors tried unsuccessfully to artificially inseminate Hua Mei's mother again this year. There is hope that they will be successful with a pregnancy next year.