28th September 2023 – (Washington) In a heartwarming display of dedication, Jane Christensen, a fervent panda enthusiast from Michigan, braved the distance and inclement weather to bid farewell to the giant pandas before their departure from Washington. Christensen’s fascination with these adorable creatures began over 50 years ago when China gifted two pandas to the United States. Undeterred by the chilly rain, she expressed her enduring “panda-monium” outside the panda exhibit at the Smithsonian National Zoo.
The imminent departure of all three pandas from the zoo signifies the temporary end of a decades-long connection between the cuddly animals and the US capital. As a prelude to their departure, the zoo has organized a week-long event dubbed “Panda Palooza,” attracting thousands of fans who don panda-themed hats and shirts in a show of affection.
While the pandas’ departure was anticipated due to contractual obligations, many cannot help but view this shift as indicative of the mounting strains between Beijing and Washington. The black-and-white furballs first arrived in 1972 as a gift following then-president Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China. Recognising the species’ remarkable ability to captivate audiences and its potential as a source of income for conservation programs, China continued to loan pandas to Washington and other zoos worldwide, establishing what became known as “Panda Diplomacy.”
The Smithsonian zoo has invested millions of dollars in the pandas’ enclosure and research, particularly in the realm of breeding. The popular 24-hour “Panda Cam” allows enthusiasts to monitor the animals’ behaviour and health. For Heidi Greco and her family, the anticipation leading up to the pandas’ departure has been palpable. Travelling for hours from Ohio, Greco shared that her daughter, Stormy, who donned a panda hat and carried a newly purchased panda umbrella, is infatuated with these creatures. The family observed the pandas as they traversed their individual outdoor enclosures before venturing into an indoor viewing area, where visitors can witness the animals up close, enjoying snacks and munching on bamboo.
Greco expressed her dismay at the prospect of the Washington and Atlanta pandas, along with the exception of one elderly panda in Mexico, leaving North America. “When I heard that these pandas were leaving, and the Atlanta Zoo pandas were leaving, and there would be no panda bears left in all of North America […] I was really, really upset,” she lamented. Indeed, Zoo Atlanta in Georgia plans to send its four pandas back to China by late 2024, further reducing the panda population in the United States.