Throughout this undeniably terrible year, pockets of levity provided a brief respite from the bleakness. The chief arbiter of joy in 2020? Xiao Qi Ji, the National Zoo’s baby panda. Without further ado, a look back at some of the cub’s cutest moments. (Spoiler alert: That’s pretty much everything he does.)
The year began auspiciously with a lack of baby pandas in Washington. We had just bid bon voyage to Bei Bei as he embarked for China via the Panda Express, leaving behind a bear-shaped hole in our city’s heart. Could 2020 get any worse?
As it turns out, yes.
But while the world shut down and watched Tiger King, panda queen Mei Xiang started showing changes in behavior—an indication she was entering her breeding season. The zoo hopped on the opportunity, artificially inseminating the mom-to-be with male Tian Tian’s frozen semen. Thus the coronavirus baby boom commenced.
Finally, a glimmer of hope: The zoo announced that an ultrasound had detected fetal tissue in the 22-year-old bear, a sign she was pregnant. Our maskne cleared, toilet paper returned to shelves, and all seemed okay, if only for a moment.
Just a week later on August 21 (pandas have remarkably short gestations), Mei Xiang gave birth to a stick of butter healthy cub. Exclamations of “what is that?” followed by “awww” rang out across the city. Order had been restored: DC was once more home to a baby panda.
Quickly emerging from his ugly-duckling phase, the pocket panda began to grow tufts of quintessential black-and-white fur. (The black markings on his legs are adorably referred to as knee socks.)
The cub celebrated his one-month birthday on September 21 with his first veterinary exam. Clocking in at 13.4 inches, the bear was 15 percent tail and just over two pounds. While his eyes were still sealed shut, his vocal chords proved hearty as he grunted and squealed.
It’s a boy! After genetic testing revealed the panda’s gender, the zoo celebrated with a gender reveal for the chonky bear. Giant panda papa Tian Tien painted an abstract work of art using blue paint—no pyrotechnics necessary.
According to an update by assistant curator of giant pandas Laurie Thompson, the baby bear had become “quite a wiggle worm,” as seen during his two-month exam. We discovered that our roly-poly panda was as rotound as he was long, measuring 16.5 inches in both girth and length.
At the end of October, the dad-bod bear celebrated Halloween. Similar to human babies, the panda cub received a treat of his own: a pumpkin. Tian Tian and Mei Xiang also got some carrot-and-applesauce “snack-o-lanterns” to munch on.
In typical Leo fashion, the cub started developing a saucy personality. Upon hearing the keepers laugh during an exam, the feisty fuzzball barked in response and then promptly fell asleep. Although the panda made it look effortless, we can only imagine how exhausting it is to be this cute all the time.
In mid-November, voting opened on a subject that would have major repercussions for Washington: the panda’s name. Just under 135,000 people practiced their democratic right to name our prince, and he was dubbed Xiao Qi ji. The Mandarin term translates to “little miracle.”
Three-month-old Xiao Qi ji gave us yet another moment to be thankful on Turkey Day when the Giant Panda Cam captured his inaugural steps. After a short struggle, the pint-size bear tucked his squat legs under his squat body and began waddling toward mom Mei Xiang.
December started on a melancholy note when the zoo announced Mei Xiang and Tian Tian would leave the National Zoo at the end of 2023, with Xiao Qi ji slated to depart at the same time.
Until then, we’ll keep our eyes on the cub. Recently, he spooked Mei Xiang with a plucky bark and sampled some of mama bear’s bamboo. We can only assume Xiao Qi ji has no New Year’s resolutions—after all, he’s already pretty much perfect.
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Daniella Byck joined Washingtonian in August 2018. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied journalism and digital culture. Originally from Rockville, she lives in Logan Circle.