2008-07-09 05:06:05 GMT 2008-07-09 13:06:05 (Beijing Time) Xinhua English
WASHINGTON, July 8 (Xinhua) -- One day before his 3rd birthday on July 9, Tai Shan, as usual, lay down for a nap after feasting on bamboo, with his belly up and both legs hanging from down the rocks, oblivious to spectators' marveling on the other side of the window.
He probably has no idea just how much joy he has brought to visitors to the Washington National Zoo and also how much of a push he has given to the so-called U.S.- China "panda friendship" in the past three years.
But someone does.
"It has been a wonderful three years since his birth here in the national zoo," Lisa Stevens, a veteran curator of the National Zoo Giant Panda program, told Xinhua. "We call him a little rock star."
Tai Shan has been not only "quite a star," he is also one of the best goodwill ambassadors representing his species and hometown of China, Stevens said.
The cub was the first offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the second pair of giant pandas the zoo received from China, who were both born in Wolong, Sichuan province.
According to Stevens, Tai Shan is "an excellent eater" who can take in about 18 to 20 kg of food everyday, but he is now still ina normal range of weight for his age, at 185 pounds (83.25 kilograms). Regular blood tests and other health checks also show he is in great health.
Just like a human child, he is still very playful, playing with his bear toys all the time, and very interested in the adults and always trying to find out what they are doing, she said.
Considering social interaction is very important for animals when they are growing up, it would be nice to find Tai Shan a companion, Stevens said, adding the only thing the zoo can do "is to make sure he could have enrichment from a lot of toys and interaction with adults and keepers, so he is not socially isolated."
Starting work on the Giant Panda program 21 years ago, Stevens has taken care of the first panda couples China presented to the U.S., Ling Ling and Qing Qing.
Apart from supervising Tai Shan's growing up, she is also expecting another baby panda to be born in the zoo.
According to a zoo news release, the results of a recent test on Mei Xiang led scientists to believe it would be mid-to late-July before she either gives birth to a cub or comes to the end of a false pregnancy, which is common in giant pandas.
"What is a mystery about pandas is that we cannot tell whether she is pregnant or not," she said. "We know her (Mei Xiang's) hormone profile is good, her face looks like she is pregnant, but the only way we can make sure is looking at ultra sound scans about two weeks before the cub comes out."
Stevens said that the program staff have geared up for the pregnancy watch that needs to collect information and data for 24 hours a day, instead of 10 hours every day at the moment.
"What is different here from the situation in China is that we depend on our volunteers," she said, adding there will be about 60people working on the pregnancy watch program in addition to more than 100 on the interpreter program.
"Tian Tian is the restless one, taking food quickly. Mei Xiang has a good deal of lying back. Tai Shan, like his dad, is very playful," said Jim Beard, a retired engineer who became a volunteer to watch pandas in Dec. 2000.
"As an observer, you have to watch them very intensely. Get to know them as old friends although we do not integrate with them," he said.
The arrival of pandas in the United States coincided with the beginning of normalization of U.S.- China diplomatic relations in 1972. Ling Ling and Xing Xing brought their charms and Chinese hospitality to the national zoo, where they were welcomed and visited by generations of Americans.
The news reports about their immigration to the U.S. and the self-made greeting cards children sent to them are still displayed in the panda museum of the zoo.
Currently, there are four pairs and four panda cubs in the U.S., living in the National Zoo, San Diego Zoo, Atlanta Zoo and Memphis Zoo.
Recently, a strong earthquake in Sichuan province, China, resulted in tens of thousands of casualties as well as the destruction of the panda reservation center in Wolong, not only straining Chinese nerves but also those of Americans.
Apart from the millions of U.S. dollars the U.S. government, the Red Cross and other groups has donated to Chinese earthquake victims, American panda lovers also reached out their hands to Chinese pandas.
The American Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Giant Panda Conservation Foundation coordinated several U.S. zoos in organizing relief fund-raising efforts, donating 165,000 U.S. dollars to the China Wildlife Conservation Association of the State Forestry Administration to help reconstruct nature reserves for the treasured Chinese animal.
"We saw very good examples in Wolong, Sichuan, where many staff members stayed with their pandas, caring for pandas through the catastrophic disaster," Stevens said.
Recalling her trip to Wolong last September, she said "it was very sad to see facilities destroyed," but she also believes "the incredible programs there" would be rebuilt and become even better.
Mabel Lam, the China program liaison officer of the national zoo, also said in an email to Xinhua that China has done a great job in rebuilding the lives of the earthquake victims and rescuing pandas as well as surveying the destroyed habitat to see what needs to be done to restore homes for pandas.