Young, wild and 3: Youngest panda celebrates last birthday at National Zoo

This is a big year for the pandas at the National Zoo.

For the youngest, Xiao Qi Ji, Monday was his third birthday.

He was greeted by lots of media, a crowd of visitors singing “Happy Birthday,” some presents and a large “fruitsicle” cake, a confection made up of diluted apple and pineapple juice, sweet potatoes, carrots and honey.

To the delight of everyone, Xiao Qi Ji ambled over to the frozen treat, sniffed it, tasted it, and repeatedly patted the big blue number 3 on the top of the treat, as if to underscore that he’s really three years old now.

Xiao Qi Ji celebrated his third birthday on Monday, complete with a large “fruitsicle” cake with the number three on it. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

Brian Amaral, senior curator at the zoo, described the young panda as “kind of goofy,” and very “entertaining” to work with.

Brandie Smith, director of the National Zoo, agreed with Amaral’s assessment. “He’s a ball of fun, he has a lot of energy, he’s got a lot of personality, he’s so charming!” Noting how he didn’t seem bothered by visitors oohing and ahhing over his antics, Smith said, “He’s kind of a ham!”

While all the pandas that have been housed at the National Zoo are special, Xiao Qi Ji is special — his Mandarin Chinese name translates as “little miracle” in English.

“He was conceived and born during the pandemic,” Smith said. “I don’t think we had a lot of hope for anything during that time.” The odds were stacked against that pregnancy, she explained because Mei Xiang was, in her words, “of advanced maternal age” and her likelihood of having a cub was less than one percent.

Xiao Qi Ji, who was born during the Covid-19 pandemic and whose name translates as “little miracle,” celebrated his third birthday on Monday, by devouring a large “fruitsicle” cake with the number three on it. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

Smith explained that at the end of 2023 Xiao Qi Ji and his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, will be returned to China, under the agreement with the government there.

“The goal for this giant panda program is not to just show them here at the zoo, it’s to save an endangered species” said Smith. “There are only about 1,800 giant pandas on the planet. There are more black bears in the state of Virginia than there are pandas in the world,” Smith said.

Amaral said a tremendous amount of work goes into the care and feeding of the pandas, and that while their numbers are not where biologists would like to see them, they are a success story in terms of coming back from the brink of extinction. Amaral said while they used to be a “poster child” for endangered species, “They’ve now become sort of the poster child for what we can do for them and how they can rebound.”

Generally, Amaral said he’s optimistic about the future of all of the animals at the zoo. “I do have hope for the future. You have to — that’s why we do what we do and come in every day.”

The agreement the zoo has to house the pandas runs through Dec. 7, but before the beloved pandas pack up to go, there will be a “Panda Palooza,” a celebration of the decades of the panda presence at the zoo. Details on that celebration, from Sept. 23 through Oct. 1, will be on the zoo’s website in early September, according to officials there.

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Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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