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Pandering to pandas on both coasts

The National Zoo's baby panda, Tai Shan, made his public debut Thursday. NBC's Bob Faw was there to witness the hoopla.

Was it panda-monium?

"Yesss!" exclaimed one man, thrusting his ticket into the air.

No, panda-mania.

"Yeah!" said a kid running into the exhibit.

The hoopla and the media crush — all for a black and white bundle of fluff, who turns 5-months-old on Friday.

"He's very precocious, very gregarious," says John Berry, director of the National Zoo. "Yesterday he was doing back flips."

Born the size of a stick of butter, Tai Shan — the name means "peaceful mountain" — weighs in now at 22 pounds. He is growing a pound a week, and wowing the first visitors to see him Thursday in public, like 11-year-old Brittany Luckett who came all the way from Citrus Heights, Calif. She helped raise $1,200 to help save the endangered species.

"Awww, he's so cute, I wanna hold him," she says.

For the National Zoo, Tai Shan is already a big money-maker. There are 30 new panda items in the gift shop here. The zoo's Web site has logged 7 million hits since his birth.

"[He's] like a human baby, with a big head," exclaims panda fan Tara Snyder.

So, what's not to like?

Well, at the San Diego Zoo, there's the matter of bragging rights.

"I'm excited for the Washington Zoo," says San Diego Zoo tour guide Mae Ferguson. "But I have to say, we set the precedent of who has the most pandas in America. We have four."

San Diego's pandas, like baby Sue Linn, have fans, just as ardent.

"They way they move their bodies and waddle," says Chicago resident Valerie Maniscalzo, when asked what she likes about pandas.

"We refer to them as charismatic multi-vertebrates," says Dr. Don Lindburg, the director of the San Diego Zoo panda team.

On the West Coast, pandas, too, are a source of brisk sales, and, uh, maintenance.

"She's actually going to poop about 22 to 25 times a day, which is wonderful job security for our keepers," says tour guide Ferguson.

But who's panda-ering?

Whether on this coast, or the other, cuddly "charismatic multi-vertebrate" is — as cuddly "charismatic multi-vertebrate" does.