Farewell party for panda at US Zoo before returning to China

Bao Bao, the giant panda at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, DC, did not disappoint at her Chinese dumpling farewell party on Thursday morning.

As a crowd gathered outside her yard, Bao Bao, who will return to China on Tuesday, wandered about.

She munched on bamboo and then napped on a tree trunk, leaving many to wonder how long the nap would last and when she would come and open a special food box, on the outside of which was drawn a jiaozi (Chinese dumpling).

The siesta lasted about 10 minutes.

But before strolling toward the food box, she climbed a tree, sat near the top and relaxed before coming down 12 minutes later to get her special treat.

Bao Bao has been in the spotlight since the zoo announced her departure in October.

The dumpling party, with food provided by the Chinese embassy, was one of a series of celebratory events.

Helen Gonzales, who lives not far from the zoo, said she has visited the giant pandas on most weekends since 2006, when Tai Shan, the first surviving panda born at the zoo, was only 9 or 10 months old.

Tai Shan returned to China in 2010 to join the breeding programme.

"It's sad. I know I will cry," she said of Bao Bao's upcoming departure.

Bao Bao was born on Aug 23, 2013, to giant panda Mei Xiang through artificial insemination.

Bao Bao was the first surviving cub at the zoo since 2005 after Tai Shan's birth.

At the beginning of the dumpling party, Lisa Washam of Ohio wrote on wish cards prepared by the zoo.

"You are an amazing panda and the best is yet to come. I am very excited for you to take the next step," she said while reading her message to reporters.

Laurie Thompson, assistant curator of giant pandas at the zoo, described Bao Bao as "very unique".

"She is a very independent girl. She loves to do what she wants. She vocalizes a lot when she wants something, a lot like her dad," said Thompson, referring to Tian Tian, the zoo's 19-year-old giant panda.

Thompson called Bao Bao "a sweetheart".

"We love her here. But we know that our work here is done, we need to send her off," she said.

Under a loan agreement between the zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association, cubs born in the zoo by giant pandas on loan from China should move to China before they reach the age of 4.

The zoo began training Bao Bao in recent months to acclimate her for a 16-hour flight to China in a huge shipping crate.

Michael Brown-Palsgrove, curator of giant pandas, said Bao Bao is now quite comfortable with the crate. "She has no hesitation to enter that space. I think she will be comfortable on the trip," he said.

Bao Bao will be accompanied by a panda keeper and a veterinarian, as well as by some of her favourite foods, such as bamboo, sweet potatoes, apples and biscuits.

While some news reports said that giant pandas returning to China from Zoo Atlanta had encountered language barriers, keeper Stacey Tabellario at the National Zoo said it should not be a big problem for Bao Bao. The hand signals used by Tabellario and her colleagues are the same as those in China, she said.

Online, the zoo has been sharing a video, Best of Bao Bao, which shows fun moments including her naming ceremony, a roll in the snow in her yard and a climb on an ice cake on her first birthday.

Besides Washington, giant pandas are also housed in three other US zoos, in San Diego, Atlanta and Memphis, Tennessee.