Guided by a police escort and with a bounty of bamboo, apples, biscuits and sweet potatoes secure, the motorcade carrying one of Washington’s most visible celebrities on Tuesday hurtled down Interstate 66 as she braced for a 16-hour flight to Chengdu, China.
Bao Bao, the National Zoo’s beloved giant panda, bade a formal and highly publicized goodbye to the only home she had known since her 2013 birth — her first time leaving Washington. As part of a “cooperative breeding program” with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, pandas born here must leave for a new home in China by the age of 4.
The National Zoo’s giant pandas have become a part of Washington lore, ridiculed for their sloth and exalted in internet memes for their tumbles in the snow. In 2015, Michelle Obama attended a naming ceremony at the zoo for Bao Bao’s brother, Bei Bei.
Flocks of panda fans have followed Bao Bao “from the time she was born on camera,” said Laurie Thompson, an assistant curator of giant pandas at the zoo. “She’s kind of our little special miracle girl.”
“We get a lot of people who come just to see pandas, and then we hope they see the rest of the zoo,” Ms. Thompson said. Over the weekend, she said, visitors from across the country and Canada came just to say one last goodbye.
On Tuesday, reporters and staff members in an otherwise empty zoo gathered outside Bao Bao’s woodsy exhibit to watch her being prepared for a final exit. A thrilled spokeswoman declared that the panda had been spotted climbing a tree and scratching her backside for local camera crews earlier in the day. Before the 205-pound panda was called to a custom-built crate, Bao Bao slumped facedown over a log in a predeparture nap, her arms dangling on either side. She had already eaten her customary breakfast: 17 pounds of bamboo and 150 grams of “leaf eater” biscuits.
Zookeepers soon summoned Bao Bao to the four-by-six-foot enclosure she had grown to know well. To prepare for her send-off, panda keepers had been walking her through it every day, eventually having her stay with the doors closed and adding an occasional honey water spritz to soothe her. On Tuesday, a forklift outfitted with panda ears drove the crate to a truck parked along the main thoroughfare of the zoo.