When giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI) in December 2000, they surprised keepers with their seemingly boundless energy. “Their activity level wasn’t anticipated,” said a staff member at the time. “Even though the Zoo has had pandas before”—Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, who came to the United States in 1972—“they were different ones, and older.”
One morning, 2-year-old Mei Xiang (pronounced may-SHONG) climbed an electrical conduit on the outside of her habitat and tucked herself under the building’s overhang. She and her mate, 3-year-old Tian Tian (tee-YEN tee-YEN), quickly figured out how to work the water valves in their indoor enclosure, though they stopped playing with them before the space could flood. On another occasion, Tian Tian mounted a platform and knocked a tile off the ceiling.
As noted in this magazine at the time, “It [didn’t] take long for someone to suggest that any prison wanting to verify that it is escape-proof might hire Mei Xiang and Tian Tian.”
More than two decades later, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, now 25 and 26, respectively, have slowed down considerably. Nowadays, it’s their youngest son, 3-year-old Xiao Qi Ji (SHIAU-chi-ji), who more often makes headlines for his antics, from playing in the snow to jumping in front of a hose’s spray when keepers were cleaning an outdoor patio.
The cub has captivated the world since his August 2020 birth, in no small part thanks to the Giant Panda Cam, which allowed would-be visitors to track his development virtually while the Zoo was closed to the public due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In many ways, the surge of interest in the species sparked by Xiao Qi Ji’s unexpected arrival—his mother was 22 when she had him, making her the oldest panda to give birth in the U.S.—hearkens back to a comment made by first lady Pat Nixon when she welcomed the pandas to Washington in 1972: “I think panda-monium is going to break out right here at the National Zoo.”
Come this fall, panda fans in Washington will experience a different type of “panda-monium.” Under an agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji must return to China by December 7, leaving the capital without pandas for the first time in 23 years. When—and even if—NZCBI will receive new pandas remains unclear, but staff remain hopeful that negotiations will prove fruitful.
As NZCBI’s director, Brandie Smith, tells NBC Washington, “No matter what happens, we are going to continue our giant panda conservation work, the stuff that we are doing … in the field to save pandas, to save the species and our hopes. My dream is that giant pandas will return to the National Zoo sometime in the near future.”
To say goodbye to Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji, here’s a look back at major milestones in the history of giant pandas at NZCBI, as illustrated by five decades of media coverage. Below, follow the story from the first Smithsonian pandas’ arrival in the U.S. to the current trio’s impending return to China.
Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing take Washington by storm
In February 1972, President Richard Nixon and the first lady embarked on a history-making trip to China that ignited a new diplomatic relationship between the two world powers. On the first night of the visit, Pat Nixon sat next to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai at a dinner in Beijing. Spotting a cigarette tin decorated with an image of two pandas, she commented, “Aren’t they cute? I love them.” Zhou replied, “I’ll give you some,” prompting the first lady to ask, “Cigarettes?” “No,” the premier said. “Pandas.”
Back in the U.S., zoos vied for the honor of hosting the promised pandas. The director of the Bronx Zoo argued that his institution was well equipped to house the animals, as it still had a panda habitat with a sprinkler and swimming pool from its last panda, Susie, who died in 1951. (Chiang Kai-shek, leader of China’s Nationalist government, gifted Susie and her mate to the zoo in 1941.) The panda house “is now inhabited by wallabies,” the zoo’s director said. “But we’d send them back with the kangaroos in ten minutes if we could get a panda.”
The Smithsonian’s zoo pulled ahead in the race due in part to its location in the nation’s capital. The Zoo’s director, Theodore Reed, traveled to China with a gift from the U.S.: a pair of musk oxen named Matilda and Milton from the San Francisco Zoo. On April 16, Reed returned to Washington with 136-pound Ling-Ling (“darling girl”) and 74-pound Hsing-Hsing (“twinkling star”) in tow. Anticipation for the pair’s public debut was high, and “many a keeper and many a policeman were offered substantial bribes for ‘just a peek,’” wrote a staff member at NZCBI in an unpublished manuscript.
When journalists were finally granted access to the pandas on April 20, the day of a formal acceptance ceremony hosted by the first lady, one reportedly remarked, “They’re not real. They’re just not real. They’re too cute to be true.” Assessing the pandas’ temperaments, a reporter for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain declared that Ling-Ling, the female, was “a big ham,” while Hsing-Hsing (pronounced shing-shing) was “an introvert”—or, the writer added, “maybe he just doesn’t approve of being transplanted into a capitalistic society.”
Pandas first graced the cover of Smithsonian in June 1972, when Larry Collins, supervisor of the Zoo’s panda unit, offered readers a behind-the-scenes look at how the animals were settling in. Upon being placed in her enclosure, Ling-Ling, then believed to be about a year and a half old, “exited [her crate] immediately and prowled around her new quarters,” putting her water pan on her head and then knocking it “clattering across the cement floor.” Hsing-Hsing, just over a year old, “remained suspiciously inside his shipping crate for about five minutes before venturing out.”
During the pair’s first week in Washington, Collins noted, “more than a thousand people an hour passed by the panda-proof glass wall of the hastily refurbished enclosures,” only to find that Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were sleeping soundly, “barely visible in the shadows of their private dens.” That month, more than one million visitors flocked to the Zoo in hopes of catching a glimpse of the animals.
Collins acknowledged that scientists’ understanding of pandas was limited at the time but emphasized that “close and continuing observations will help fill in a great number of details of panda behavior.” Already, staff had learned to care for the animals at a distance, noting an occasion when Ling-Ling charged a keeper and chased him around her cage. “An animal that can bite through a thick bamboo shoot can inflict serious damage to a human arm,” Collins wrote.
Keepers knew that Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing wouldn’t be able to mate until they reached maturity, likely between 5.5 and 6.5 years old. But none could have guessed just how challenging reproduction would be for the pair—and for pandas overall.
“Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling do their thing-thing”
Pandas next appeared on Smithsonian’s cover in September 1979, when NZCBI scientists, inspired by the birth of a panda cub conceived via artificial insemination in China, sought to replicate this success with Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. “The pair has long since reached maturity,” Smithsonian reported, “but, largely because of ineptness by the male, Hsing-Hsing (‘aberrant stance’ is the way curator of mammals William A. Xanten Jr. describes the problem), no pregnancies have occurred.” (According to the Washington Post, Hsing-Hsing adopted “bizarre positions [that] made procreation impossible,” while Ling-Ling “stood on her head.”)
Annual artificial inseminations, as well as an attempt to encourage Ling-Ling to mate with Chia-Chia, a panda temporarily brought in from the London Zoo in 1981, failed to produce a pregnancy. Then, in March 1983, NZCBI’s pandas successfully mated for the very first time. “Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling have finally done their thing-thing,” wrote the Associated Press in its coverage of the consummation of the “arduous and frustrating courtship.”
To maximize their chances of success, keepers also artificially inseminated Ling-Ling with sperm from both Hsing-Hsing and Chia-Chia. Four months later, she gave birth to a seemingly healthy, 4.7-ounce male cub, but it died of pneumonia within hours. A DNA test identified Hsing-Hsing as the cub’s father.
Over the next six years, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing produced four more cubs. One was stillborn. In 1987, Ling-Ling gave birth to twins, one of whom died shortly after the birth and the other of whom lived for four days before dying of an infection. The pair’s final cub died 23 hours after its birth in 1989, “leaving officials clinging only to the tenuous hope that the aging animals”—Ling-Ling was then about 20 years old, while Hsing-Hsing was around 19—“might mate again,” according to the New York Times.
On December 30, 1992, a keeper found Ling-Ling’s body in the outdoor yard of the panda habitat. The 23-year-old had died suddenly, leaving staff and the public bereft. As a spokesperson told the AP, “Ling-Ling was very popular, and her death has affected people here more than any death that I’ve been around for.” An autopsy identified the cause of death as heart failure.
Hsing-Hsing outlived his mate by just under seven years. On November 28, 1999, staff euthanized the 28-year-old, who was suffering from kidney disease and other age-related health problems. A Smithsonian article at the time offered a look at the panda’s final months, detailing his diet of bamboo, cottage cheese gruel, honey, rice and vitamin supplements.
“He used to take [his pill] in a sweet potato,” said a spokesperson, “but then he decided that he was tired of sweet potatoes. But one day, some keepers were having lunch near his cage, and somebody had a blueberry muffin. He sniffed it out, and they gave him a nibble. He loved it. So we put the pill in a blueberry muffin.” Hsing-Hsing wouldn’t settle for just any sweet treat: He demanded muffins from Starbucks. Thankfully, the coffee chain agreed to donate the necessary baked goods.
Giant pandas return to Washington
NZCBI’s Panda House remained empty for just over a year, with negotiations for a replacement pair stalling over money. Ultimately, NZCBI agreed to pay China $10 million (raised through private donations) for a ten-year loan of two young pandas. Tian Tian, whose name translates to “more and more,” and Mei Xiang, whose name means “beautiful fragrance,” arrived in Washington in December 2000 and made their public debut in early January 2001.
Like Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, NZCBI’s new pandas quickly showed keepers their distinct personalities. “They’re both very people-oriented,” longtime staff researcher and panda expert Devra Kleiman told the magazine in 2001. “[Tian Tian is] more like a dog, upbeat, mellow, happy to see you, always eager. Mei Xiang is more catlike. Sometimes she expresses interest in you, sometimes not.”
The pandas’ habitat and lifestyle differed significantly from that of their predecessors. Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing mainly ate rice-based gruel, lived in a “grassy and rather bare yard,” and spent the majority of their time separated. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, meanwhile, enjoyed a diet of bamboo, high-fiber biscuits, carrots, apples and boiled yams, as well as a larger enclosure “landscaped with their native habitat in mind, from mist- and fog-bathed Sichuan species of firs and Chinese red cedars to sand wallows and the cooling grottoes.” The pair spent much of their time together, but as they got older, they lived increasingly separate lives, socializing mainly during breeding season.
These changes in NZCBI’s panda program reflected scientists’ evolving understanding of the species, buoyed in large part by increased collaboration with colleagues in China. Speaking with Smithsonian, Kleiman pointed to the death of Ling-Ling’s cub in 1987 as an example of when recent research could have made a difference. “The microphone was on, and the infant’s vocalizations changed,” she said. “Had we known what we learned a few years later in China—that these were distress calls—we’d have pulled the cub earlier” to provide medical care.
The question at the forefront of both scientists’ and visitors’ minds was whether Mei Xiang and Tian Tian would have more success with breeding than Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. The animals seemed more compatible than NZCBI’s previous pair, who scuffled violently on multiple occasions. Keepers also had a much clearer sense of how panda reproduction works: Beginning in 1998, American scientists started traveling regularly to China, where they observed animals at three of the country’s largest breeding centers. “Today, we know more about the biology of the giant panda than we do about any other endangered species in the world,” the chairman of NZCBI’s reproductive sciences department told the magazine in 2006.
The National Zoo’s first panda cubs
Given the brief window in which female pandas are able to reproduce, just 24 to 72 hours once a year, staff took steps to ensure optimal mating conditions in 2003, the first year Mei Xiang appeared receptive to Tian Tian’s advances. But the pandas repeatedly failed to breed naturally, so in 2004 and 2005, staff artificially inseminated Mei Xiang with Tian Tian’s sperm. On July 9, 2005, Mei Xiang gave birth to a healthy cub—the first born at NZCBI to survive infancy.
“She looked kind of startled for all of about two minutes, and then she picked the cub up,” curator Lisa M. Stevens told the Post. “She picked it right up and began cuddling and cradling it. The cub responded immediately and settled in.”
Named Tai Shan (pronounced tie-SHON), which translates to “peaceful mountain,” after a public vote, the cub made his first media appearance at nearly 5 months old. Showing off for more than 100 reporters, he “tested out his still-wobbly hind legs, successfully climbing up a pile of rocks,” but fell on his back on the way down, “flailing his stubby appendages like an overturned turtle before righting himself,” according to news reports. As Stevens explained, Tai Shan was just learning how to assert himself, much like a human toddler: “He’s at the stage now where he protests whether we pick him up and hold him or whether his mother picks him up and holds him. … He wants to do what he wants to do.”
Over the next decade, Mei Xiang gave birth to two more surviving cubs: a girl named Bao Bao (pronounced bow-BOW), born in August 2013, and Bei Bei (pronounced bay-bay), a boy born in August 2015. (Bei Bei had a twin who died four days after birth; the cub caught pneumonia after inhaling a food product.) The siblings’ names complemented each other, both translating to “precious,” or “treasure.” Though the pair lived in Washington at the same time, they never met, as keepers strive to mimic conditions in nature, where wild pandas separate from their mothers around the age of 18 months, then lead solitary existences outside of mating season.
While Bao Bao was more “delicate and independent,” according to the New Yorker, Bei Bei was “the seeming Winnie-the-Pooh of pandas—curious, engaging, playful and ever in search of something sweet.” Smith, then serving as NZCBI’s deputy director, described him as “a classic rough-and-tumble little boy. He’s a little tank.” Both pandas enchanted the public, whether virtually via the Giant Panda Cam or in person.
By the time Bao Bao and Bei Bei were born, their older brother, Tai Shan, had already returned to China. Though Chinese officials originally wanted NZCBI to send the cub overseas when he was 2 years old, the Smithsonian negotiated an extension to 2010, when he was 4.5 years old. Keeper Nicole MacCorkle accompanied Tai Shan on his journey to China, traveling aboard a specially chartered FedEx cargo plane. In his new home, reported the Post in 2016, Tai Shan lived alongside 30 or so other pandas, spending the majority of his time munching on 88 pounds of bamboo each day.
Like Tai Shan, Bao Bao and Bei Bei moved to China when they were around 4 years old, in February 2017 and October 2019, respectively. All three joined China’s giant panda breeding program upon reaching sexual maturity, between about 5 and 7 years old. Since then, Tai Shan and Bao Bao have both started families of their own: Bao Bao gave birth to Dun Dun in July 2020 and two unnamed male cubs in August 2021. Tai Shan’s mate had a male cub on August 19, 2020—just two days before the siblings’ mother, Mei Xiang, became the oldest panda in the U.S. to give birth to a healthy cub.
Xiao Qi Ji, the “little miracle” cub
After Bei Bei’s departure in 2019, keepers had little reason to believe Mei Xiang, then 21, would produce another cub. Still, they decided to move forward with artificial insemination in March 2020, after observing signs the panda was in estrus.
“Because Mei Xiang is of advanced maternal age, we knew the chances of her having a cub were slim,” said Steve Monfort, NZCBI’s then-director, in a 2020 statement. “However, we wanted to give her one more opportunity to contribute to her species’ survival.”
Because panda fetuses are so small—at birth, they weigh roughly the same as a stick of butter, making them the tiniest mammal newborns relative to their mothers—it’s difficult to tell if female pandas are pregnant or simply experiencing a pseudopregnancy. On August 14, however, veterinarians detected fetal tissue during an ultrasound, leading NZCBI to announce that 22-year-old Mei Xiang, who’d recently celebrated her birthday, might “very shortly … give birth to a healthy cub or cubs.” On August 21, she did just that, giving birth while more than 639,000 people tuned in live via the Giant Panda Cam.
Named Xiao Qi Ji, which translates to “little miracle,” after a public vote, the cub “brought a lot of renewed attention and sparked a lot of joy,” Monfort said in December 2020. Panda lovers stuck at home during the Covid-19 pandemic followed the cub’s every move, and keepers posted near-daily updates on his development. “The chief arbiter of joy in 2020,” declared Washingtonian, was Xiao Qi Ji.
Now 3 years old, Xiao Qi Ji is perhaps the most-discussed panda in NZCBI’s history. Though he’s still young by human standards, curator Bryan Amaral tells NBC Washington that he’s “a college kid” in panda parlance. Soon, he’ll head to his new home alongside his mother and father—but not before NZCBI stages a grand farewell celebration called Panda Palooza.
Xiao Qi Ji is “way old enough to handle all this kind of stuff on his own,” says Amaral. “He’s actually our largest cub at his age that we’ve had at this point. So he’s more than ready to tackle the world on his own now.”
In the mid-1970s, when Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were still relatively new arrivals to Washington, China was home to an estimated 2,459 wild pandas. This figure dropped to 1,216 in the late 1980s, prompting China to introduce measures aimed at increasing the beloved species’ numbers. The most recent survey, conducted in 2014, placed the population at 1,864. Two years later, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which maintains a Red List of Threatened Species, downgraded the panda’s status from “endangered” to “vulnerable.”
NZCBI has played a crucial role in panda conservation, working with researchers in China to gain insights on panda husbandry, nutrition, behavior, genetics, veterinary medicine and reproduction. These efforts will continue regardless of whether the Panda House is occupied.
Reflecting on Bao Bao’s public debut on the eve of the panda’s return to China in 2017, MacCorkle aptly summarized the species’ enduring appeal: “I remember holding her up for the public and looking at the faces in the crowd and seeing how much joy they had. It’s nice to take a moment and see how [pandas] touch humans.”