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Exploring the world outside of the park

Pandamonium

New baby panda fills San Diego Zoo with enthusiastic crowds

Thursday, January 22, 2004
by Lisa Perkis, staff writer

Disneyland is not the only attraction in Southern California to command international attention. A new addition of a baby panda at the San Diego Zoo is capturing worldwide interest and bringing in huge crowds.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: The Zoological Society of San Diego. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
The Zoological Society of San Diego. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

In 1996, the San Diego Zoo made a partership with China's Wildlife Conservation Association to bring pandas to the United States to study and to try to breed the animals, protecting them from extinction.

With fewer than 1,000 pandas left in the wild, the pandas on loan from China are precious and certainly unusual. The first pandas to arrive in 1996 were Bai Yun (pronounced by-yoon) and Shi Shi (pronounced she-she), and the Zoo built its state-of-the-art Panda Research Station facility to accommodate the animals, and to provide public viewing areas.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: Signage on the way down the hill reports that the pandas are much closer than Kuala Lumpur, which is comforting to folks hurrying to get in line to wait. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
Signage on the way down the hill reports that the pandas are much closer than Kuala Lumpur, which is comforting to folks hurrying to get in line to wait. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

Three years later, Hua Mei (pronounced wah-may) was born. She was the first panda born in North America in the last decade to survive past four days. She caused a sensation not only in San Diego but internationally, and when she was put on public display several months later, visitors lined up for hours to get a glimpse of the little fuzz ball. The Zoo has since built two more public enclosures; one for Hua Mei, who is now four years old, and one for Gao Gao, the new male panda brought to the United States in 2003.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: Babies always get more attention. As a newborn panda, Hua Mei commanded two-hour waits when she was first introduced to the public. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
Babies always get more attention. As a newborn panda, Hua Mei commanded two-hour waits when she was first introduced to the public. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

Bai Yun's new little project is a male cub born August 19, 2003. Since Chinese tradition dictates that baby pandas not receive their names until 100 days after birth, officials had to wait until December 16, when the cub was given the name Mei Sheng (pronounced “may shun”), which means both “born in the USA” and “beautiful life.” He currently weighs around 14 pounds and almost 2 feet long.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: A tower of plush pandas. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
A tower of plush pandas. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

On December 19, 2003, Mei Sheng made his public debut with mother Bai Yun in the same public enclosure Hua Mei was displayed in when she was a young cub. The Zoo, learning from past experience with Hua Mei, has organized viewing times, queues and merchandise to accommodate the huge crowds that are massing to get a peek at the new bundle of joy.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: At the front entrance to the Zoo is a sign giving information about viewing times for the baby panda and mother. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
At the front entrance to the Zoo is a sign giving information about viewing times for the baby panda and mother. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

The panda exhibit is located at the bottom of Sun Bear Forest and is a bit of a walk from the Zoo's main gate. The viewing hours are subject to change at any given moment—the keepers at the Zoo rightly put the health of the cub over desires of the guests.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: There are excellent directions on the way to the panda exhibit. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
There are excellent directions on the way to the panda exhibit. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

Towards the bottom of the hill are many banners announcing the location of the Panda Research Station, which has grown considerably since 1996.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: Large banners confirm that guests have finally arrived at the Panda Research Station. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
Large banners confirm that guests have finally arrived at the Panda Research Station. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

The visitor now has a choice: Get right in line for Mei Sheng and Bai Yun or visit Gao Gao and Hua Mei in the next set of enclosures. The lines for Gao Gao and Hua Mei are typically very light, and one can usually walk right into the well-designed viewing areas.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: The walkways are staggered in height so guests standing in the aisles behind have a good view of the baby panda over the heads of guests on the first level. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
The walkways are staggered in height so guests standing in the aisles behind have a good view of the baby panda over the heads of guests on the first level. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

Next to Hua Mei's enclosure is an update chart framed in young bamboo shoots that tells guests about Hua Mei. In fact, bamboo surrounds the whole research station, which is not only beautiful but appropriate given the diet of the giant panda.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: Visitors can catch up on what Hua Mei has been up to by reading her chart. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
Visitors can catch up on what Hua Mei has been up to by reading her chart. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

Hua Mei is a big girl now and spends most of her day in the public enclosure, either sleeping on a large log or chewing on bamboo. She is a beautiful panda, and the researchers have high hopes for her mothering ability one day.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: Life of a panda: It's very tiring eating and laying around all day: Hua Mei needs a nap. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
Life of a panda: It's very tiring eating and laying around all day: Hua Mei needs a nap. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

The queue next door, for Hua Mei's half brother, is a bit daunting. At 10 a.m., the crowds have already gathered and are directed into a Disney-like winding queue outside the enclosure.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: No, it's not the queue for the Indiana Jones Adventure ride at Disneyland; it's Mei Sheng's receiving line. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
No, it's not the queue for the Indiana Jones Adventure ride at Disneyland; it's Mei Sheng's receiving line. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

The Zoo puts a huge emphasis on the research station being a “quiet zone.” One sign near the entrance of the queue states:

“A baby giant Panda was born August 19th. Loud noises can disturb the mother panda. Your efforts to keep your voices low and to avoid making loud noises will help her successfully raise the cub. Thank you for your assistance, understanding and participation in our conservation efforts.”

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: The Zoo takes the “quiet zone” near the panda exhibit very seriously. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
The Zoo takes the “quiet zone” near the panda exhibit very seriously. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

If guests are interested in seeing the cub and her mother first released into the enclosure and eating a bamboo breakfast, plan on being in the queue around 45 minutes before the exhibit is scheduled to open.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: Due to the abundance of bamboo grown in the exhibit, viewing the baby panda can sometimes prove difficult. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
Due to the abundance of bamboo grown in the exhibit, viewing the baby panda can sometimes prove difficult. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

A snack stand is open with popcorn, pretzels and churros nearby to keep restless children occupied while they wait with mom and dad.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: At times, Bai Yun is the easier of the two to view as she placidly munches breakfast and keeps an eye on her cub. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
At times, Bai Yun is the easier of the two to view as she placidly munches breakfast and keeps an eye on her cub. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

Once the exhibit is opened, visitors file into the staggered viewing area hoping to get that incredibly rare view of a panda cub in the United States. A keeper is on hand during the entire viewing time to answer questions, and to encourage the people to file through fairly quickly.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: Other times Bai Yun climbs up her log tree and seems to encourage Mei Sheng to follow her. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
Other times Bai Yun climbs up her log tree and seems to encourage Mei Sheng to follow her. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

After snapping a few pictures, guests are politely but determinedly encouraged out of the exhibit to make way for the hundreds of other visitors. By sheer luck, some visitors get a clear view of the baby, and others must be content with a view shrouded in greenery, as our group discovered.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: For the most part, guests respected this repeated request of silence. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
For the most part, guests respected this repeated request of silence. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

The keeper warned that if guests were too vocal, Bai Yun would take her cub and hide him in the exhibit so visitors would lose any view of him at all.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: Conveniently located right next to the panda exhibit is the Panda Shop, which carries all manner of merchandise for the panda lover. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
Conveniently located right next to the panda exhibit is the Panda Shop, which carries all manner of merchandise for the panda lover. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

Of course, everyone that sees Mei Sheng wants a panda of their own to hold, and the Zoo thoughtfully provided all manner of plush to choose from.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: One of the most endearing plush merchandise sold at the San Diego Zoo is the little panda with the stalk of bamboo in his mouth. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
One of the most endearing plush merchandise sold at the San Diego Zoo is the little panda with the stalk of bamboo in his mouth. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

The San Diego Zoo has a staggering number of T-shirt designs for almost every single animal on display. However, they went all-out for the giant panda.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: The Panda Shop also carries mugs and shot glasses with a variety of designs. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
The Panda Shop also carries mugs and shot glasses with a variety of designs. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

We counted at least seven different designs on shirts, sweatshirts, bibs, hats, tote bags and baby clothes.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: And of course, no home is complete without its very own panda snow globe. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
And of course, no home is complete without its very own panda snow globe. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

Clearly, pandas are big business for the Zoo, which must come in handy since they send $1 million every year to China while the pandas are on loan.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: A T-shirt for every taste. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
A T-shirt for every taste. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

Time will tell if Mei Sheng will rate the creation of a penny press in his name the way that Hua Mei did.

San Diego Zoo Baby Panda Exhibit: This penny press was created for Hua Mei four years ago. It still sees a lot of action. Photo by Lisa Perkis, copyright MousePlanet.
This penny press was created for Hua Mei four years ago. It still sees a lot of action. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

The pandas are on loan from China for another 5 years, but Mei Sheng will only be a cuddly baby for another few months. It's worth braving the crowds and waiting a bit in line to see this rare species.



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