tai shan panda | tai shan, national zoo

tai shan panda, tai shan, national zoo, national zoo panda, taishan, lauren conrad

Tai Shan At FarewellTo some, Tai Shan may just be the cute and cuddly panda that makes crowds "ooohhh" and "awwww" as he bounds around his habitat at the National Zoo. Little did anyone know, Tai Shan had a side job moonlighting as Cupid.

Frances Nguyen laughs lightly after a brief sigh. She fights back emotions as she reflects on what's taken place in her life over the past few years—first, a husband and, now, a baby on the way. In a way, she owes both to Tai Shan.

Before Tai Shan, Nguyen had no real interest in pandas. It wasn't until she viewed the lovable guy on his Web cam—courtesy of the zoo—and noticed his human-like behavior that she became intrigued. So intrigued that she eventually founded Pandas Unlimited, a fan club that raises awareness on panda conservation. Most of its members were single women—love through a chance encounter with a fellow panda enthusiast was the last thing on Nguyen's mind.

Foo Cheung had joined Pandas Unlimited out of his love forphotographing the quiet bears. He was shy and made only a few comments on Nguyen's postings to the group. Its members met regularly at the zoo, and while everyone else was under Tai Shan's spell, Cheung opted to photograph Tai Shan's mom.

"I thought that was a bit odd, that he would only photograph the mama," chuckles Nguyen."But when I think about it, I think he was just captured by the beauty of the nature of the mama panda."

FrancesandFooOver time, she and Cheung became friends. After a year, they became a couple. They were married on Sept. 19, 2009. With the exception of a panda cake topper, the wedding was panda-free, instead focusing on Cheung's Chinese and Nguyen's Vietnamese heritages.

And now Tai Shan's getting ready to leave. "There's like this empty space. I'm going, 'What do I do with my weekends now?' as my husband and I were still going to the zoo almost every weekend to see the pandas," says Nguyen.

While Nguyen has been getting all emotional about Tai Shan's departure, her husband, a scientist, seems to be focusing more on the DNA of the matter. Tai Shan is headed to China to enter a breeding program.

"My husband reminds me that this is for the better, for the panda gene pool," says Nguyen.

While some members of Pandas Unlimited are making plans to visit Tai Shan in China, Nguyen will have to make plans after her baby is born. The group has already "adopted" Tai Shan through Pandas International, a non-profit that looks after the preservation of pandas.

Tai Shan's final hours in the nation's capital are winding down—today's the last day to see him. Nguyen has been at least twice in recent days, including Saturday, the day of his farewell party. "I feel like Tai Shan was a gift," says Nguyen. "Now I'm sharing my angel."Tai Shan, the adolescent giant panda who has been a beloved symbol of Washington for the past four years, left town Thursday morning for China after a week of farewells and tearful goodbyes.

The black-and-white bear who was born at the National Zoo at 3:41 a.m. on a Saturday morning in July 2005, departed the zoo at 9 a.m. in a special crate, aboard a special truck via an undisclosed route for a special flight to the Orient out of Dulles International Airport.

His departure will end an unlikely 4 1/2-year love fest between the hard-boiled nation's capital and an oddball bear with black ears, a mesmerizing gaze and an appetite for pears.

Born so small and nearly hairless he was nicknamed "Butterstick," Tai Shan came to fascinate millions of people who saw him in person or via the zoo's pandacams. He spawned a fan club, panda merchandise, bumper stickers, postage stamps, videos, documentaries, license plates. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty once called him Washington's most important citizen.

But as the cub grew older and more mature, his days here grew numbered. Although he was born at the National Zoo, he remained the property of China by the terms of the agreement that brought his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, here 10 years ago.

Giant pandas are native to China and are endangered. Tai Shan is being sent to join a breeding program there to help increase the giant panda population.

The Thursday plan called for Tai Shan to be coaxed from his indoor compound into the specially built, steel and see-through plastic shipping crate, which keepers have been training him to enter for weeks.

By shortly after 8 a.m., FedEx workers had loaded the panda's food -- about four armloads of wet bamboo -- onto the truck, and all that left was the loading of the panda himself.

Soon, word came that the panda had entered his crate. The white shipping container, which is decorated with Tai Shan's name and the emblems of the Smithsonian Institution, FedEx, and a Chinese panda conservation center -- was carried by forklift to a loading area. Four of Tai Shan's keepers knelt before it for a somber last moment, feeding the bear sliced apples through the thick metal bars.

At 8:43, the container was secured to a shipping pallet, sealed and -- at 8:50 -- loaded into a FedEx tractor-trailer with a huge panda face painted on the side and "FedEx Panda Express" emblazoned on the back. The workers handling the crate wore jackets that said "FedEx Panda Team."

The truck left the zoo at 9 a.m., driven by Dennis Halsey, the same person who drove Tai's parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, from the airport to the zoo when they arrived from China 10 years ago.

Halseyis taking Tai Shan to Dulles in a seven-vehicle convoy that will include two carloads of U.S. Park Police SWAT officers and a car filled with zoo experts. Officials declined to disclose the route, citing security reasons.