Yes. It’s really happening. This is the last weekend that Washington D.C.’s beloved giant panda, Tai Shan (aka Butterstick), will reside at the National Zoo. Born in D.C. four-and-a-half years ago, Tai Shan is leaving for China on February 4 to become part of a breeding program that will help sustain panda populations in the wild. We’ve known it was coming: He’s the property of China and his departure was part of an agreement made long before he stole our hearts. And while acknowledging that he will be helping the breed (there are only about 1,600 giant pandas left in the wild), we can’t help but be sad to see him go. He’s been an international sensation from the moment he was born on July 9, 2005, thanks in part to the popularity of the PandaCam, which followed his every roly-poly move.
The National Zoo is hosting a huge send-off celebration this Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. to say goodbye to Tai Shan, gathering their team of veterinarians, nutritionists, reproduction specialists, and other scientists to share their knowledge about pandas. The Chinese Embassy will present dance and music presentations, kids will be able to write cards for Tai Shan, and in the most brilliant display of marketing cohesion we’ve seen in a while, Land O’Lakes will host a photo gallery of favorite images of Tai Shan from the past few years. (“When Tai Shan was born,” the Zoo explains in its press release, “…he was about the size of a stick of butter. This earned him the affectionate nickname ‘Butterstick.'” The nickname stuck.)
Happily, Tai Shan will be departing in style. According to the Washington Post, he’ll be leaving in a custom-designed FedEx jet next week that’s outfitted with his own logo on the side. They’ll be “only eight people on board, including a doctor, a [panda] member of the opposite sex…and more than 50 pounds of [his] favorite food available ‘on demand,'” says the Post. Not a bad way to travel 8,642 miles, even if it is in a crate.
So goodbye Butterstick, safe travels, and may you lead a long and fruitful life in China.
Photo: Mehgan Murphy/Smithsonian’s National Zoo