A small group started to form yesterday about 7 a.m., intent on seeing one of the best nature shows in town. On cue, the National Zoo's giant panda cub, Tai Shan, crawled on and nipped at his mother, pranced about the yard, climbed a favorite tree, dangled upside down, got wedged between the branches, worked himself free and, exhausted, finally settled on a comfy sycamore limb to nap.
The regulars agreed: It had been a very good morning for cub watching.
"He's just so adorable," gushed Sharon Hordesky, 54, a District resident and zoo volunteer who tries to see Tai Shan a couple of times a week. "He has my heart."
Since his birth last summer, the National Zoo's first surviving panda cub has captured a lot of hearts. The zoo's giant panda Web site, with cameras that chronicle Tai Shan's every move, has had about 16 million hits since the cub was born July 9. And more than 388,000 people have visited the Panda House since he went on public view in early December.
With the weather warming, the zoo expects its cub crowds to grow. It has been handling more visitors since January, when Tai Shan began going outside, and recently expanded the official viewing hours to between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. daily.
Free timed-entry tickets continue to be available through May via the zoo's Web site. But truth be told, any cub lover can usually just drop by, especially early in the morning or after 3 p.m.
"We let people in who don't have tickets, depending on how crowded it is," said Peper Long, a zoo spokeswoman. "But that may change if the crowds get bigger."
The nearly 9-month-old Tai Shan (pronounced "ty shahn") weighs about 40 pounds and has definitely become a creature of habit.
"He spends all his day in a tree," said Lisa Stevens, an assistant curator and the author of the well-read, twice-a-week Web reports on the cub's progress. "He comes down for short periods to play and nurse."
But some habits, she conceded, aren't as endearing.
Unlike his mother, Mei Xiang (may shyahng), or his father, Tian Tian (tyen tyen), Tai Shan has not yet associated humans with food. So he is in no hurry to come in at night.
"Right now, I'm paying overtime because he's not on our schedule," Stevens said. "On Saturday, a keeper didn't leave until 9:30 p.m. because he didn't come down [from the tree] until 8:30 p.m."
"We'd like to get him into a routine -- like the adults," she said.
‘A play toy for her’
Mom Mei Xiang has gone from being super-protective of her baby to only casually observing any of his new activities. They play together, roughly, and she will give him a swat if he gets too rambunctious or tries to take her food.
"He's a play toy for her," Stevens said.
Tai Shan still nurses four or five times during the day and probably at night, though the zoo no longer monitors panda activity 24 hours a day. The cub recently started sampling bamboo leaves but probably won't be fully weaned for another year.
"There's a very long transition for this species," said Mark Edwards, the zoo's animal nutritionist. "Milk is easier to digest, especially compared to bamboo, and is more nutritious."
Giant pandas are extremely rare, with about 1,600 in the wilds of China and about 160 in captivity worldwide. At panda reserves in China, the cubs are taken from their mothers four to six months after birth to help encourage new breeding.
The National Zoo's previous panda pair produced five cubs, but none survived. With Tai Shan, the zoo is trying to more closely replicate life in the wild while it collects data about the growth and development of the cub.
"This is an exciting opportunity" to study cubs, particularly in a more naturalistic setting, Edwards said.
When the Fujifilm Giant Panda Habitat opens this fall, there will be twice as much space, and more activity choices, for the pandas. Stevens said this will give the zoo the flexibility to let Mei Xiang keep tending to the cub and still proceed with plans to breed her next spring with Tian Tian.
The female will come into heat next year even if she is still nursing the cub, Stevens said.
Male pandas never stay with their offspring. Tian Tian and Tai Shan have "noticed" each other through the fence that separates their yards but will remain apart. Stevens said Tian Tian has adjusted very well to being by himself.
The zoo drew more than 1.9 million visitors in 2005, its best attendance since 2002, when it had 2.05 million. And the cub's birth has helped double overall merchandise sales, from $427,000 in the first quarter of 2005 to $850,000 in the first quarter of this year. Giant panda plush toys and T-shirts and other items with Tai Shan's name on them are big sellers.
Even Friends of the National Zoo, the animal park's nonprofit support organization, has benefited from panda fever. It gained about 9,000 recruits in 2005, about a third of whom joined late last year after learning that FONZ members would get a special early peek at the new cub.
Funds for conservation research
The cub birth has helped raise money for the zoo's panda conservation research projects -- about $300,000 was budgeted this year. But Stevens and Edwards said the research program is still not fully funded. Edwards, for example, couldn't get $35,600 he sought to pay for a graduate student and lab equipment and supplies to study how pandas ingest bamboo.
For now, the zoo wants Tai Shan to learn his name, respond to simple commands and associate keepers with food and other positive experiences. There will be more training in the future.
Under a 10-year, $10 million agreement with the Chinese, the zoo has its panda couple through 2010. It is hoping to negotiate a new, cheaper pact to keep Tai Shan's parents longer. But the cub is slated to be sent to China when he turns 2.
"I don't even want to think about it," Stevens said.