Return of the Pandas

After moving from Wolong to Washington, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are packing them in at the National Zoo

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Two new giant pandas, frisky youngsters, have moved in at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., delighting both the public and the staff researchers. The female, Mei Xiang (may sh-ONG), and the male, Tian Tian (t-YEN t-YEN), arrived from China on a FedEx jet named PandaOne. They've taken to the much improved panda enclosure as though it were their home in faraway Wolong.

We know a lot more about pandas than we did when the first pair arrived in 1972, and this couple lead a different life. Most important, they spend their days in situations where they can be together, and so far they do indeed interact at least half the time. "They play together," says keeper Brenda Morgan, "and they tend to eat and sleep near each other." They are called into separate enclosures for the night, and then let out again at seven in the morning. Tian Tian bounces up, but Mei Xiang likes to sleep in. Some mornings, in fact, Tian Tian has to roll on her and even walk on her to get her to wake up and come out and play.

This time around, too, Zoo staff are working at giving the animals more stimulation, or "enrichment," an approach now being taken with all appropriate animals. In addition to their regular feedings, for example, the pair are offered boxes filled with hay and studded with high-fiber leaf-eater biscuits, or tubs of water containing apples and carrots. Tian Tian wades right in; Mei Xiang is more dainty, quietly eating one piece at a time.

 The outdoor enclosures are a lot more than grass this time. Sichuan species of firs and Chinese red cedars have been planted and are bathed in fog and mist, replicating to some degree their natural habitat. There are sand wallows, and not one but two grottoes, one that will be air-cooled and one that will be water-cooled, to help the animals get through the hot and muggy Washington summers.

This time around, too, will be a learning experience. There's no time to waste. "We're trying to save a species that lives on only one thing, bamboo. There are a thousand of them in a land of 1.2 billion people," says Lucy Spelman, the veterinarian who is director of the Zoo. Much of the $10 million to be paid to China for the loan of the animals, paid in donations big and small, will go to expand and improve giant panda reserves in China.

Tian Tian and Mei Xiang are not worried. Three years from sexual maturity, they frolic together, roughhousing, rolling around on each other, or rolling down the slope of their outside enclosure for the sheer fun of it. For now, life is good.

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