News & Politics

Get to the Zoo Fast, Because Bei Bei’s Days in DC Could Be Numbered

The panda turns four soon. Under a deal with China, that's when his stay in DC comes to an end

Photo Credit: Skip Brown, Smithsonian's National Zoo

In 2015, DC received the best gift anyone could ask for— the birth of a new panda cub, Bei Bei, at the Smithsonian National Zoo. 

Problem was, it wasn’t exactly a gift. And now four years later, our universally beloved and cuddly panda bear will most likely have to leave. 

Much like a cursed spell from a fairy godmother, according to the Smithsonian, any baby born to Mei Xiang and Tian Tian must move to China after their fourth birthday for breeding and research purposes. On August 22, Bei Bei turns four. That’s in a matter of weeks, people. 

The explanation goes back to the deal between the zoo and China that brought the pandas here. Unlike the zoo’s first pandas, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, who were a gift following Richard Nixon‘s groundbreaking visit to Chairman Mao, the current panda couple were more of a loan—with strings attached. Under the same deal, Bao Bao, one of Bei Bei’s predecessors, was sent back when he turned four in 2017.

Sure, it’s hard to argue with an agreement between with the China Wildlife Conservation Association designed to research the elusive breed, but does this one have to go?! 

After three attempts over the course of over a month to get details on his departure, the answer is still unclear — the only answer we’ve gotten from the Smithsonian’s panda team is that they don’t know when, or if, he’ll be leaving. We’re going to take that as both a risky and positive sign, so stop what you’re doing and watch Bei Bei adorably tumble around and eat bamboo as soon as you can.

However, there was one crucial piece of panda information we did learn. Mei Xiang has been showing potential signs of a pregnancy, due to her nest-building behaviors. The zoo will know for sure whether or not this is a false alarm at the end of August. 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock—or are under the sway of some of the region’s notorious panda haters—you know that this city lives, breathes, and dies for its pandas. When the zoo’s cherished online Panda Cam shuts down, even for a second, panic ensues. During last year’s government shutdown, hundreds fretted if the pandas were at risk for not getting enough food. And now, news sites are abuzz at the mere possibility of a new pregnancy. 

Whether Bei Bei leaves or not, or if Mei Xiang is pregnant, there’s one thing we know for sure — if we can use this as an excuse to go see the pandas, we’ll take it.

Kalina Newman
Editorial Fellow

Kalina Newman is an editorial fellow for Washingtonian. Previously, she covered metro news for the Boston Globe. Her work has appeared in ARLnow, DCist, and the Washington City Paper. Kalina graduated from Boston University in 2019 with a degree in journalism.