The nation's capital is abuzz this winter, but (for once) it has nothing to do with politics. Instead, Washingtonians can’t stop talking about Bao Bao, the giant panda cub born at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, last August. After months behind the scenes – and visible only via the zoo’s “Panda Cam” – Bao Bao made her public debut on January 18, 2014. From now on, visitors to the zoo will have a chance to see the adorable black and white cub in person.
It's time for Bao Bao to meet her fans — Photo courtesy of Abby Wood / Smithsonian's National Zoo
Up until recently, the cub - which was fathered by Tian Tian - had been kept out of sight while being nurtured and tended to by her mother, Mei Xiang. (Tai Shan, a male cub born to Tian Tian and Mei Xiang in 2005, was sent to China for breeding; the pair have no other surviving offspring.)
Bao Bao’s name, which means “precious treasure” in Chinese, was chosen by members of the public, more than 120,000 of whom voted online for the moniker. Although it’s too early to predict Bao Bao’s personality, it’s clear that zoo staffers and visitors alike already consider the cub to be a precious treasure.
Like all babies, Bao Bao loves to play — Photo courtesy of Annalisa Meyer / Smithsonian's National Zoo
She’s a rare one, too. Notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, giant pandas are often among zoos’ biggest draws. In fact, Bao Bao is only the second surviving cub to be born at the National Zoo since the facility received its first pandas in 1972 in honor of Richard Nixon’s visit to China, the first such visit by a sitting U.S. president. Despite numerous diplomatic conflicts since then, the love of giant pandas has been a heartening area of common ground between the two nations.
Bao Bao, like most babies, is pretty active early in the morning (Here’s hoping Mei Xiang is a morning panda!) and in the mid afternoon. Of course, that might change with the steady stream of eager visitors now filing by in front of her. Will the cub bask in the spotlight of her adoring fans, or will she stick close to her mother, burying her face in Mei Xiang’s fur and ignoring all those strange smiling and waving humans?
It hardly matters. Washingtonians love their pandas, and they already adore Bao Bao. And visitors to the National Zoo surely will, too. The wisest among them will also queue up at the panda house early (It opens at 10 a.m. daily.), because new cub or not, there’s always a crowd.
Bao Bao's toy box — Photo courtesy of Annalisa Meyer / Smithsonian's National Zoo