It's Panda Time In Washington

panda national zoo Mei Xiang eats bamboo 011001
Talk about your tough houses: Even before the show started, the suits assembled and demanded world peace, insisted on saving the planet.

No worries. The speeches over, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang got right down to their globe-defending duties on Wednesday, elegantly executing a rollover or two and wiggling their ears to a chorus of appreciative "Ahhhhhhs."

"They are two VIPs — Very Important Pandas — who have brought our great nations closer," said Liu Xiaoming, the deputy chief of mission at the Chinese embassy. "Join them in making our world a better place and a more pleasant home for all."

CBS News Correspondent Jim Axelrod reports Wednesday was coming-out day for the two pandas, ending a month's quarantine after their arrival from China.

Some visitors had waited up to four hours to see the pair. Six-year-old Sara Blackenstoe, outfitted in a panda suit, was first in — but they had to wait another 30 minutes to get the speeches out of the way.

Panda priority No. 1, each speaker suggested, was warming ties between two of the world's largest countries.

"On our way here, we read in the newspaper that President Clinton paid a very special visit to the exhibit," said Chen Jianwei, a senior Chinese forestry official. "I believe President-elect Bush will also love these two giant pandas."

Zoo director Lucy Spelman emphasized their ecological mission, saying the zoo hoped the two would bolster support for preserving other endangered species.

Much of the million dollar-a-year fee the zoo was paying China would be spent on U.S.-supervised preservation training for Chinese wildlife officials, Spelman said, and would be more than compensated in more donations through higher zoo attendance.

And then, on cue, the pandas emerged to save the world.

Mei Xiang (pronounced may-SHONG and meaning "beautiful fragrance") was first out, eyeing the crowd for a few seconds — and then scurrying back into her enclosure.

An anxious minute or so later, Tian Tian ("more and more") — a reference, perhaps, to his hefty 210 pounds), gallantly took the lead, strolling purposefully to a rock outcrop directly facing the crowd.

He rolled over a few times, and then sat up, splaying his legs like any other working stiff about to take a lunch break. He reached out and stuffed a few bamboo branches into his mouth.

The crowd was stunned into incoherent coos.

Spelman's attempt to explain their appeal stumbled into less than scientific territory.

"They have those round faces," she said, scrunching up her own. "Those black and white faces. They wiggle their ears when they eat."

Eventually, Mei Xiang, a more diminutive 141 pounds, understood that performing equaled chow, and made her way forward for her own bamboo break.

That was what especially impressed Darius Ricks, an 8-year-old Washingtonian who took a morning off from school to see the pandas.

"She wasmall, but she could pull a tree down too," he said.

"Right now they're eating about 100 pounds of bamboo between the two of them," Spelman said.

Little Hannah Hillman was also impressed with the pair. "I've seen lots of pictures of them. I have them all over my room and stuff." But seeing them in person, she said, was "way better" than pictures.

Washington's National Zoo first hosted pandas in 1972 when China gifted then-President Richard Nixon and the United States with Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. Those pandas strengthened ties between the two adversarial nations and became an overnight attraction. The duo lived longer than any other of the endangered species held in captivity until Ling-Ling died in 1992 and Hsing-Hsing was put down in 1999.

Panda curator Lisa Stevens said the crowds, which could increase from two to three million, should be no problem for Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, which were visited over the weekend before their public debut by President Clinton. She said one reason people love pandas is because the bears remind them of little children.

Giant pandas number roughly 1,000 in the wild and are found in only three Chinese provinces — Sichuan, Yunnan, and Shaanxi. At birth, a panda weighs about 4 ounces and matures to more than 200 pounds, with almost all of the weight gain coming from gorging loads of wild bamboo.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, both born in captivity in China, are not the only pandas currently living in the United States. Two pandas are on loan to the Atlanta zoo, and two adult pandas and one cub are on display in San Diego.

Spelman said the zoo hopes to mate the young the bear-like mammals in about two or three years, when Mei Xiang is old enough to conceive.

"We certainly would be thrilled if we have panda cub," Spelman said. "But, our goal is to contribute to the conservation of the wild species. So to have captive pandas and a sustainable captive population is critical. If they breed, we would be thrilled."

Any offspring produced from the pair will have to be returned to China unless another fee is agreed upon, Spelman said.