On Saturday, four days after the giant panda cub was named the winner of the Summer Showdown, Bao Bao began climbing her first tree as a one-year-old. But once she smelled her special birthday treat, she climbed back down to investigate. Below the tree were three bamboo shoots with honey at their bases and hand-painted posters labeled “Long Life,” “Good Health” and “Many Cubs.” Bao Bao first approached “Long Life,” sniffing the honey and pawing at the poster. Dozens of reporters watched her decide between the three bamboo shoots, and later, hundreds of fans wearing paper Bao Bao hats came over to see the birthday girl.
The National Zoo and the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China celebrated the giant panda’s birthday with a Zhuazhou (dra JO) ceremony, a Chinese tradition for first birthdays. During the ceremony, the baby chooses between three items, each symbolic and foretelling of the baby’s future.
“Bao Bao’s an important ambassador for saving species,” said National Zoo Director Dennis Kelly. Giant pandas have been on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s endangered species list for the past quarter-century. The World Wildlife Fund—which uses the giant panda as its logo—says just 1,600 remain in the wild.
Giant pandas are native to China. The National Zoo’s first pandas were gifts to President Nixon from the Chinese government following his historical 1972 trip there. Currently, there are about 15 pandas held by four zoos in the United States. The National Zoo has three—Bao Bao, which means “precious” or “treasure,” plus her parents Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. Bao Bao was born at the National Zoo August 23, 2013, and will go to China when she turns four years old.
In addition to a black and white birthday cake on Saturday, (chocolate on the inside and vanilla icing on the outside), the Chinese Embassy served dandan (dahn dahn) noodles, a Chinese tradition and one of Kelly’s favorites. While eating, Kelly chatted with Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai. “I asked why a long noodle and he said it represents a long life,” Kelly said. “It might be more healthy than birthday cake.”
“This is a living example of our cooperation,” Tiankai said about Bao Bao’s contribution to Chinese-American relations. “This is also a very good example [of] what kind of accomplishment we could have if we are really working together.”
Despite light rain, by 9:30 a.m. more than 300 people were waiting in line to see the little 44-pound panda cub. “She tends to get a lot of attention,” said animal keeper Marty Dearie, a clear understatement.
One of the first people in line was Barbara Barron, a 73-year-old D.C. native and a veteran of the National Guard. Barron had arrived at the Zoo at 5 a.m. “My friends say, ‘You are obsessed with those animals,’” Barron said. “How can you not love the animal?” She dressed like Bao Bao for the occasion, wearing black and white, including earrings and nail polish. She is planning a trip to China to see more pandas.
Nicole MacCorkle, also an animal keeper, says that milestones from Bao Bao’s first year include her first steps and the first time she left the den. And on Saturday, the panda was putting on a show. “She must know it’s her birthday because she’s being a character,” MacCorkle said.