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Bei Bei Has Officially Left DC

The giant panda boarded the Panda Express for China today at Dulles International Airport.

Photograph by Nathan Diller.

Well, it’s official: Bei Bei has left Washington. After a week-long “Bye Bye, Bei Bei” send-off, earlier today, the beloved bear boarded the “Panda Express” and departed for his new home in China.

Like any prepared international traveler, the giant panda got to the airport early, arriving at Dulles International Airport from the National Zoo around 11 AM, where he was greeted by a crowd of reporters who had gathered to cover his departure.

The ground crew, wearing FedEx Panda Team vests, loaded Bei Bei’s luggage onto the Boeing 777F freighter, packed with lots of snacks for the 15-1/2-hour flight to Chengdu, including 66 pounds of bamboo, two pounds of apples and pears, cooked sweet potatoes, and other treats.

With plenty of food, water, and other supplies stowed, employees escorted Bei Bei across the tarmac.

Bei Bei boards the Panda Express. Photograph by Nathan Diller.

He arrived in style in a custom-built white metal enclosure embossed with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and FedEx logos. The crew placed the enclosure on a scissor lift and loaded it onto the plane, which featured a custom decal of its namesake passenger near the cockpit. Then the crew closed the rear door while the ground crew and the pilot completed their remaining tasks. After they finished, they closed the front door, and the image of Bei Bei’s face–eating bamboo–came into full view.

Then they were off, headed down the runway and into the sky, and the black-and-white bear slowly faded from view.

The flight marks the end of an era for the National Zoo and for Washington. After speculation this summer, the zoo announced last month that the four-year-old bear would relocate to Bifengxia Panda Base for breeding and research as part of a deal with China.

And while it’s sad to say goodbye, Bei Bei’s in for an enjoyable trip. Captain John Hunt, who also flew Bei Bei’s older sister Bao Bao to China in 2017, told Washingtonian last week that the bears usually enjoy the flight. “They lean back against the corner most of the time and they have a stick of bamboo, an apple, and some water,” he said. “They’re perfectly content, and they’re very docile.”

Safe travels, Bei Bei, and stay in touch.

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Nathan Diller
Editorial Fellow

Nathan is an editorial fellow at Washingtonian. Originally from Nashville, he graduated from Columbia Journalism School with a master’s degree in 2019. His work has also appeared in SPIN, NYLON, and Nashville Lifestyles.