Special delivery: US-born panda cub Bao Bao bound for China

National Zoo visitors vie for a chance to see Bao Bao on her last day in the U.S. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)
National Zoo visitors vie for a chance to see Bao Bao on her last day in the U.S. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty) ((WTOP/Megan Cloherty))
Bao Bao enjoys some snacks on her last day at the National Zoo (WTOP/Megan Cloherty) ((WTOP/Megan Cloherty))
National Zoo visitors vie for a chance to see Bao Bao on her last day in the U.S. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty) ((WTOP/Megan Cloherty))
Sisters Ally and Hailey, of Potomac, Maryland, visit the National Zoo to say goodbye to Bao Bao. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)
Sisters Ally and Hailey, of Potomac, Maryland, visit the National Zoo to say goodbye to Bao Bao. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty) ((WTOP/Megan Cloherty))
Bao Bao will be able to move around with ease and stand in the crate that keepers say she'll travel in to China. (Courtesy Smithsonian National Zoo)
Bao Bao will be able to move around with ease and stand in the crate that keepers say she’ll travel in to China. (Courtesy Smithsonian National Zoo)
Bao Bao's keepers will have her favorite snacks available during the 16-hour flight to China. (Courtesy Smithsonian National Zoo)
Bao Bao’s keepers will have her favorite snacks available during the 16-hour flight to China. (Courtesy Smithsonian National Zoo)
Bao Bao will be shipped on her own Fed Ex cargo plane February 21. (Courtesy Smithsonian National Zoo)
Bao Bao will be shipped on her own Fed Ex cargo plane February 21. (Courtesy Smithsonian National Zoo)
Smithsonian National Zoo Giant Panda Bao Bao will be shipped to China next week. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)
Smithsonian National Zoo Giant Panda Bao Bao will be shipped to China next week. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)
(WTOP/Kathy Stewart)
Bao Bao will move to China on Feb. 21. Friends of the National Zoo surprised Bao Bao with a going away party. (WTOP/Kathy Stewart) ((WTOP/Kathy Stewart))
Pandas at the National Zoo are moved to China by the time they are four years old. Bao Bao will be turning four in August. (WTOP / Kathy Stewart)
Pandas at the National Zoo are moved to China by the time they are four years old. Bao Bao will be turning four in August. (WTOP / Kathy Stewart) (WTOP / Kathy Stewart)
(WTOP/Kathy Stewart)
A toddler at the National Zoo on Saturday morning wore a panda hat to say goodbye to Bao Bao. (WTOP/Kathy Stew) ((WTOP/Kathy Stewart))
Friends of the National Zoo surprised Bao Bao with a going away party. Bao Bao will move to China on Feb. 21.  WTOP / Kathy Stewart
Friends of the National Zoo surprised Bao Bao with a going away party. Bao Bao will move to China on Feb. 21. WTOP / Kathy Stewart (WTOP / Kathy Stewart )
In this photo taken Sept. 25, 2015, panda cub Bao Bao, roams in an enclosure at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington. The National Zoo will be saying bye-bye to panda cub Bao Bao. The zoo said Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016, that Bao Bao will move to China within the first few months of 2017.  (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
In this photo taken Sept. 25, 2015, panda cub Bao Bao, roams in an enclosure at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington. The National Zoo will be saying bye-bye to panda cub Bao Bao. The zoo said Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016, that Bao Bao will move to China within the first few months of 2017. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Bao Bao
Bao Bao has the distinction of being the first surviving cub born at the zoo since 2005. (Courtesy National Zoo) (Courtesy National Zoo)
Bao Bao
Bao Bao turns 3. (Courtesy National Zoo) (Courtesy National Zoo)
13542517163_093699727e_b.jpg
Bao Bao March 20, 2014 (Connor Mallon, Smithsonian\’s National Zoo)
Bao Bao (Courtesy Smithsonian Institute)
Bao Bao the Giant Panda cub is at the National Zoo. The cub is almost a year old and made her public debut at the zoo in January. See more photos of her development on WTOP. (Courtesy Smithsonian Institution) (Smithsonian Institution)
13542504693_f55aa92a95_b.jpg
Bao Bao March 20, 2014 (Connor Mallon, Smithsonian\’s National Zoo)
A mural in the Cleveland Park neighborhood bids farewell to Bao Bao. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)
A mural in the Cleveland Park neighborhood bids farewell to Bao Bao. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty) ((WTOP/Megan Cloherty))
(1/19)
National Zoo visitors vie for a chance to see Bao Bao on her last day in the U.S. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)
Sisters Ally and Hailey, of Potomac, Maryland, visit the National Zoo to say goodbye to Bao Bao. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)
Bao Bao will be able to move around with ease and stand in the crate that keepers say she'll travel in to China. (Courtesy Smithsonian National Zoo)
Bao Bao's keepers will have her favorite snacks available during the 16-hour flight to China. (Courtesy Smithsonian National Zoo)
Bao Bao will be shipped on her own Fed Ex cargo plane February 21. (Courtesy Smithsonian National Zoo)
Smithsonian National Zoo Giant Panda Bao Bao will be shipped to China next week. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)
(WTOP/Kathy Stewart)
Pandas at the National Zoo are moved to China by the time they are four years old. Bao Bao will be turning four in August. (WTOP / Kathy Stewart)
(WTOP/Kathy Stewart)
Friends of the National Zoo surprised Bao Bao with a going away party. Bao Bao will move to China on Feb. 21.  WTOP / Kathy Stewart
In this photo taken Sept. 25, 2015, panda cub Bao Bao, roams in an enclosure at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington. The National Zoo will be saying bye-bye to panda cub Bao Bao. The zoo said Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016, that Bao Bao will move to China within the first few months of 2017.  (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Bao Bao
Bao Bao
13542517163_093699727e_b.jpg
Bao Bao (Courtesy Smithsonian Institute)
13542504693_f55aa92a95_b.jpg
A mural in the Cleveland Park neighborhood bids farewell to Bao Bao. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The National Zoo is packing up its American-born panda cub Bao Bao for a one-way flight to China, where the 3-year-old will eventually join a panda breeding program.

Monday is the last day to see Bao Bao at the National Zoo before her long flight to China.  Bao Bao is scheduled to depart the zoo Tuesday morning and travel to Washington Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia, where she’ll board a special FedEx plane. Fans will be able to watch her departure from the zoo and airport on the zoo’s Facebook page.

The cub won’t have to worry about finding overhead bin space or dealing with a talkative seatmate on the 16-hour, nonstop flight Tuesday afternoon into Wednesday. She’ll be the only panda on the plane, traveling with a keeper and a veterinarian. Her accommodations are first class, too: a special metal crate the size of a double bed she can stretch out in. A sticker on its outside announces its contents: “one panda.”

In preparation for the trip, keepers have a packing list of Bao Bao’s favorite foods including: 55 pounds of bamboo, 5 pounds of apples and 2 pounds of sweet potatoes.

“Most of the flight, we hope she’s going to eat,” said panda keeper Marty Dearie, who will travel with Bao Bao to China and says pandas spend 13 to 16 hours a day eating.

Once Bao Bao arrives in Chengdu, China, she’ll be driven to her new home, one of the bases run by the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda. Dearie will briefly remain with her while she gets adjusted. In time, when she reaches sexual maturity, between 5 and 6 years old, she’ll become part of a panda breeding program. The National Zoo says Bao Bao is traveling now because it’s better for pandas to travel in the winter months when it is cool.

Bao Bao delighted the zoo and panda fans when she was born Aug. 23, 2013. Her mother, Mei Xiang, gave birth to her first cub, Tai Shan, in 2005, but then failed to get pregnant for years. Then, a cub born in 2012 didn’t survive.

Brandie Smith, the zoo’s associate director of animal care sciences, said that when Bao Bao was born a year later she remembers “five minutes of pure joy” followed by “weeks of sleeplessness and worry.”

Since then, Bao Bao, whose name means “precious treasure” in Chinese, has grown from about the size of a stick of butter to more than 200 pounds. Her keepers describe her personality as “very independent,” sort of like a household cat.

Laurie Thompson, the assistant curator of giant pandas, said keepers have been preparing Bao Bao to leave for China since she was born, teaching her behaviors that will allow her Chinese keepers to do things like draw blood and perform ultrasounds. Thompson said Bao Bao’s departure is “definitely bittersweet,” but her keepers “know she’s ready” to leave.

“We’re ready. We’ve done our part, and we’re ready to send her to China so she can have her own babies someday,” Thompson said.

With Bao Bao’s departure, the National Zoo will have three remaining pandas. The zoo’s two adult pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, arrived on loan in 2000 but belong to China, as do any cubs they have. The pair’s first cub, Tai Shan, returned to China in 2010. Their third cub, Bao Bao’s younger brother Bei Bei, was born in 2015 and will remain at the zoo for now.

A total of four U.S. zoos have pandas that are on loan from China. Pandas born in the United States return to China, generally by age 4. With Bao Bao’s departure, there will be a dozen pandas remaining in the United States: four in Atlanta, three in Washington, three in San Diego and two in Memphis, Tennessee.

The National Zoo and Washington residents have a special relationship with the creatures, however. The zoo’s first pair of pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, were a gift from China and arrived at the zoo in 1972 following President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the country. The pair had five cubs while living at the zoo, but none survived. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are the zoo’s second panda pair.

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Follow Jessica Gresko on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jessicagresko. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jessica-gresko.

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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