In a country fraught with political division, there’s at least one thing we can count on to bring us all together: giant pandas. And this weekend the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is honoring D.C. celeb baby Bei Bei’s first birthday.
Last summer pandamonium once again took over Washington, D.C. when the National Zoo announced that everyone’s favorite momma bear, Mei Xiang, was either pregnant or full of bamboo. When she finally went into labor a couple months later, panda watchers flocked to the Zoo’s online panda cam, promptly crashing it.
Bei Bei, whose name was selected by First Lady Michelle Obama and Madame Peng Liyuan, First Lady of the People's Republic of China, has quickly grown from that tiny pink rat-like cub to an irresistibly cute and plump young giant panda. His good appetite shows, as he’s already significantly larger than his siblings were at his age. But don’t try to give him a carrot—he’s not a fan, says Nicole MacCorkle, senior giant panda keeper at the National Zoo.
He’s lively and interacts with the panda keepers. He’s confident in the yard and without hesitation climbed a tree during his first time out. But he’s obedient, returning to his mother when she calls with a signature panda bleat.
“He’s amazing. He’s the best little guy. He’s full of personality,” says MacCorkle. And he’s laid back, much like his father, Tian Tian. “Nothing seems to phase this little guy,” she says.
As much as he’s still a momma’s boy—bugging her to play until she finally makes it clear it’s time to stop—giant pandas are naturally independent, solitary animals. In about five to six months he will be weaned from her and eventually separated from her and placed in his own yard. He’ll live at the Zoo until he’s four years old, at which point he will be sent to China as part of a conservation agreement between the two countries.
For his birthday celebration, the Zoo and the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China will host a Zhuazhou (dra-JO) ceremony, specially tailored for a giant panda cub, and historically held to honor a baby’s first birthday. In a traditional ceremony, several symbolic objects are placed in front of the baby, and whichever one he chooses is said to foretell something about his future. Bei Bei will have three banners with painted symbols placed in his yard, and he or his mother Mei Xiang will choose one.
After the ceremony Bei Bei, his sister Bao Bao and his father Tian Tian (who also have birthdays around this time) will receive fruit ice cakes, weighing up to 100 pounds.
For the panda cub fans out there sad to see baby Bei Bei grow up, don’t worry. As soon as he’s weaned, the Zoo will again begin the fertilization process with mama Mei Xiang. There could be another baby panda next summer.