News & Politics

Adorable Bear Makes Media Debut

Adorable Bear Makes Media Debut
Photographs by Andrew Propp.

Bei Bei, the National Zoo’s four-month-old giant panda cub who has already shown to be a pretty great bear, made his debut to reporters and photographers Wednesday and promptly continued his streak of delighting the public.

The cub, born August 22, appeared for about 20 minutes during the preview, during which he carried around and supervised by panda keeper Juan Rodriguez. During the visit, Bei Bei also tried to waddle walked around the panda enclosure’s rock formations, but seemed more interested in burrowing in small cubbies that left only his backside visible. Still, it all went more swimmingly than the media debut for the zoo’s last cub, Bao Bao, who introduced herself to media in January 2014 by slipping on some rocks and falling on her face.

“He’s a boisterous little boy,” says Brandie Smith, the zoo’s associate director of animal care. “He’s really adventurous.”

The whole experience tilted on Bei Bei’s willingness to be briefly separated from his mother, Mei Xiang, for just a few minutes. Rodriguez carried Bei Bei—not unlike a squirmy baby—before letting him try his ambulatory skills on the rocks. While the cub has been able to take a few steps here and there, he is still developing his ability to walk, Smith says. Mei Xiang was eventually allowed back inside the indoor panda habitat and quickly went to town on a pile of bamboo; Bao Bao and the cub’s father, Tian Tian, remained in the outdoor dens during the photo session.

Bei Bei currently weighs 17.5 pounds and is proving himself to zoo staff as energetic and a bit wild, even if he didn’t show it when a presidential-pool-sized group of reporters and photographers pressed up against the panda-habitat glass. “He plays pretty hard in the morning with mom,” Smiths says.

Along with learning to walk, the cub is still figuring out how to eat solid foods. He’s been mouthing biscuits and pieces of bamboo, but isn’t quite sure about chewing and swallowing them, Smith says. For now, he continues to get all his nutrition from nursing.

Bei Bei’s arrival last summer also means that the panda exhibit will be a full house through at least 2017, when Bao Bao is expected to be shipped to China, which owns all pandas everywhere and takes possession of foreign-born cubs after four years. That year will also be the next time the National Zoo attempts to breed Mei Xiang, who is currently 17 years old. (Adult female bears are not impregnated during the year following a successful pregnancy.) But the 2017 breeding season could also be Mei Xiang’s last, Smith says. The Smithsonian recently signed a five-year extension with its Chinese counterparts to keep Mei Xiang and Tian Tian here through 2020, though zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson says “there could be a discussion” about a bear exchange during that period for scientific and research purposes.

Bei Bei will make his debut to zoo visitors on January 16, although members of the Friends of the National Zoo supporters’ group will get to see him starting a week earlier. Until then, there’s panda cam, Washingtonian‘s December issue, and these photos from Wednesday:

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.