50 years!


Celebrating 50 years of Panda Cuteness at the National Zoo
Guest post by angela n., Karen Wille, and Carol McGrath


Mama Mei Xiang and cub Xiao Qi Ji enjoy their 50th Pandaversary cake, April 17, 2022. ©angela n.

This month, the National Zoo celebrated fifty years of caring for giant pandas. DC’s extended panda family has produced four surviving cubs and four surviving grandcubs, helping to conserve this formerly endangered species

Each panda who has called DC home has had their own wonderful personality. We appreciate panda super-fans Ratima Chowadee, Carol McGrath, Frances Nguyen, Victoria Pickering, Cyndy Taylor, Karen Wille, and Judy Young for sharing their photos and memories. 

Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing

Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were gifted to the United States by Mao Zedong in 1972. The Zoo Director at the time described them as “very very lovable” pandas who could “steal your heart away.” They mated and gave birth several times, but sadly none of their cubs survived more than a few days. Ling-Ling passed away in 1992 at age 23, and Hsing-Hsing passed away in 1999 at age 28. The Zoo estimated that they had as many as 75 million visitors over those years.

When Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing came to the zoo, their yards were vastly different then what we see now. They each had a wooden platform and there were very few trees for them to climb. They did play together in the same yard and enjoyed chasing each other around.  

Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling at their “howdy window,” November 1980. ©Carol McGrath
Ling-Ling © Family photo courtesy of Cyn Taylor.

Hsing-Hsing, November 1980. In the early days of pandas at the National Zoo, they did not have a lot of enrichment and toys. This photo was a rarity to see Hsing-Hsing with a ball. Nowadays, zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, including the National Zoo, provide animals with more enrichment to help meet their behavioral health needs.  © Carol McGrath

Hsing-Hsing, November 1980. © Carol McGrath

A new generation 

China loaned the National Zoo a new panda couple in 2000. According to the Washington Post at the time, “Chinese officials say Tian Tian and Mei Xiang are the healthiest, smartest and most active of their generation of cubs” born at their panda reserve.  They live at the Zoo to this day.

Tian Tian

24-year-old Tian Tian (Papa Bear) has fathered all of the Zoo’s surviving cubs. His faves are baths and snow days

Tian Tian playing in the snow (2014) © Karen Wille
Tian Tian, October 2018 ©angela n.

Tian Tian and the sugar cane from his 50th anniversary cake ©Karen Wille 

Mei Xiang

23-year-old Mei Xiang is the mother of all the Zoo’s surviving cubs. Her hobbies include wrestling and playfully stealing treats from her children. Mei Xiang has always been a very patient and wonderful Mother to all of her cubs.

Always the perfect and patient Mama, Mei Xiang (2016) © Karen Wille

Mei Xiang, August 2021 ©angela n.

Tai Shan

The Zoo’s first surviving cub, sweet-16-year-old Tai Shan (“Butterstick“) now lives in China. Tai can be a very picky eater and once refused an apple in China because there was a small bruise on it! He is known as a very good boy; his Chinese keepers call him “a courteous gentleman.” He has fathered one cub.

Tai Shan, April 2006 © Frances Nguyen

Tai Shan (2006) ©Karen Wille
Tai Shan (2007). ©Karen Wille
Tai Shan (2009) ©Karen Wille

Tai Shan, December 2009 ©Frances Nguyen
Tai Shan (2011 at Bifengxia) ©Karen Wille
Tai Shan (2014 at Dujiangyan) ©Karen Wille

Bao Bao

After a seven year “reproductive drought,” Bao Bao was born in 2013. According to The Atlantic, “From the start, Bao Bao was fearless and independent. She loved climbing, and [the National Zoo’s associate director of animal-care sciences at the time, Dr. Brandie] Smith spent many late nights trying to coax her out of trees so she could go home.” Bao Bao moved from DC to China in 2017. Now eight years old, she has given birth to three cubs; you can often see her playing with her cub on the Wolong Grove Panda Cam

Bao Bao at a preview the day before her public debut (Feb 1, 2014). ©Victoria Pickering
Bao Bao’s first birthday party, moments before she toppled her ice cake (2014). ©Carol McGrath
Bao Bao (2016) ©Judy Young
Bao Bao (2017) ©Judy Young
Bao Bao in the snow (2017) ©Judy Young
Bao Bao’s going away party before her trip to China (2017). ©Judy Young

Bei Bei

Born in 2015, Bei Bei is a goofy clown who likes to climb as high as possible in the trees and then fall down, constantly, on purpose. He has lived in China since 2019. 

Bei Bei hangs out, May 2016. ©angela n.

Bei Bei (2016) ©Carol McCrath
Bei Bei high in the trees (2017) ©Carol McGrath
Bei Bei’s 4th birthday party (2019). ©Carol McGrath
Bei Bei’s last day at the Smithsonian National Zoo (2019) ©Carol McGrath

Xiao Qi Ji

Xiao Qi Ji (“Little Miracle”) was born live on the panda cam August 2020, bringing joy to so many at a difficult time. His hobbies include being upside down and asking his mom for piggy back rides. He is more cautious, like his Mom, and is the first cub to use Mei Xiang’s method for extracting treats from his enrichment toys. 

Xiao Qi Ji, June 2021. ©angela n.

Xiao Qi Ji and his weeble during the 50th Pandaversary (2022). ©Karen Wille
Xiao Qi Ji at the 50th Pandaversary, April 16, 2022. ©Karen Wille
Xiao Qi Ji and the 50th Pandaversary jolly ball. ©Karen Wille

Pandaversary Party

On April 16th and 17th, the Zoo held a 50th Pandaversary Party! 

Brandie Smith, John and Adrienne Mars Director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute stands beside Ambassador Qin Gang of the People’s Republic of China, ©Karen Wille
Mama Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji enjoying their 50th Pandaversary Cake on April 17, 2022. ©Ratima Chowadee
Mei Xiang and the 50th Pandaversary weeble. ©Karen Wille
Tian Tian and his 50th Pandaversary cake. ©Karen Wille
Bao Buns filled with red bean paste provided by the Chinese Embassy for the 50th Pandaversary. ©Karen Wille
Lion Dancers at the 50th Pandaversary. ©Karen Wille

To learn more about the Zoo’s panda conservation efforts, check out the Zoo’s Pandaversary website and the Smithsonian Channel’s remarkable documentary “The Miracle Panda.”

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