Sunday, February 7, 2010

Saying Goodbye to Tai Shan, the Giant Panda

One of great unsung positives about being an author is your ability to set your own schedule. One of the downsides is that you can literally work around the clock. There's no one to tell you your day is over. The work will never, ever totally be done.

But once in a while, you simply have to pry yourself away from your keyboard. Especially if you need a break. There's a point where you can't think clearly...and I'd reached it.

I've been editing Photo, Snap, Shot, the 3rd book in the Kiki Lowenstein Mystery Series, for days. Now, I don't know about my blog sisters, but for me, editing is a terribly intense time. I do a lot of beating myself up. Every imperfection is achingly clear to me. I go over and over every line, searching for flaws and faults. This book in particular has been worrisome because it's a combination of reality and fiction, and the reality concerns a secret society.

After a week of looking at galleys, and two ten-hour days over the weekend, I needed to walk away for a while and return with new eyes.

Right about then, an email popped up in my inbox. My new friend Marjorie and I had been talking about going to the National Zoo to see Tai Shan, the baby giant panda. Did I want to see Tai Shan before he left for China? If so, would I like to go on Monday?

I emailed Marjorie right back with my answer: YES!

Tai Shan's name means Peaceful Mountain. Marjorie wisely scheduled our visit so we arrived before the crowds. I had a clear view of the little black and white darling. Did you know that a panda is more closely related to a racoon than to a bear? 'Tis true.

Here's a photo of Tai Shan strolling out to munch on bamboo.

Behind him you can see the large Fed Ex crate that was his "container" for when he was flown back to China. The crate weighed 1,300 pounds and took about 200 hours to build. The zookeepers allowed him free access to it so he would feel "at home." Last Thursday, four days after I saw him, Tai Shan was lured by a breakfast of bamboo into his traveling container. He was taken by motorcade to Washington Dulles Airport and loaded onto a Boeing 777 freighter dubbed "FedEx Panda Express" for a 14 1/2 hour flight to Chengdu China.

Crunch! Crunch! I bet he enjoyed all 175 pounds of bamboo they took along for inflight dining. As a special treat, they also packed pears (his favorite) , apples and cooked sweet potatoes.
On the morning that we visited, Marjorie and I could hear Tai Shan chewing on his snack. Even though he looks like a cuddly stuffed animal, pandas have a respectable set of teeth!
I asked a zookeeper how she felt about Tai Shan going home. She said, "It's good for him. He'll get to breed. It's good for all of us, because his offspring will be returned to the wild to help repopulate pandas. And there's a possibility his mama (Mei Xiang) is pregnant, so we have our fingers crossed that we'll have a new baby panda soon." Learn more here
Since female pandas are only fertile one day a year, that's an iffy proposition. The captive breeding program offers renewed hope for repopulating the pandas. Currently, there are only a couple thousand giant pandas living in the mountainous areas of southwest China. Fortunately, the National Zoo has made significant improvements in their rate of breeding success.

Here's a photo of Tai Shan in his "inside" cage at the Panda House, where he was climbing on a rock. The temp inside the Panda House is kept around 65 to 70 degrees, the same temp of his cabin in the Boeing 777. The whole time we visited, he was a busy, busy guy, lumbering about. I bet he'll be fine in his container, but I'm equally certain that he'll be happier exploring his new home, the Bifengxia Panda Base outside Ya'an.

Here I am, smiling and enjoying my well-earned break. (You can see a video about him and his impact on local well-wishers here: After Marjorie took this photo, we went to the gift shop. I bought two journals made of panda poo. The poo is rinsed, cleaned, ground up and mixed into a pulp to form large sheets of paper. I've decided to turn my journal into a scrapbook featuring all the cool things I'm getting to do in my new home. That will include adventures like visiting the "Peaceful Mountain" before he flew to China.


signlady217 said...

Panda poo? That is just too weird! Glad you enjoyed seeing him before he left town.

Looking forward to the new book. I enjoyed the first one, and have the second one on hold at my local indie bookstore (till I get enough extra $$ together to pay for it!). Keep up the good work!

Linda O. Johnston said...

How adorable, Joanna. And how sad that Tai Shan has left. I hope he has a happy life in China--and many babies (or as many as possible for pandas!).

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Sign Lady, you might not realize this, but you won a large print copy of Cut, Crop & Die. Just send me your postal address at and I'll get it to you! Then you can have your local indie bookseller order Book #3, Photo, Snap, Shot!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Linda, weird thing. The Chinese zookeeper talked to the press and said that Americans were just too emotional about Tai Shan. He said he planned to treat Tai like every other panda. I guess they refused the idea of having an interpreter help Tai learn Mandarin. The new zookeeper said he thought immersion would do the trick! Whoever the new zookeeper is, he could use a lesson or two in p.r.!

Cameron said...

Oh, I so wanted to go visit him before he left! I almost went on Monday, that would've been funny if I'd've seen you there! It's harder for me to get in since I live out in Manassas... I didn't know until this week that you lived in this area!! I'm sorry I missed him and I'm sorry I missed you! Hopefully I can see you at some point before I can see Tai Shan again, LOL! Oh, and I hope Mamma is pregnant again!

signlady217 said...

No, I had no idea! How did that come about? Yeah for me! My friends will all be so jealous (in a good way!). Thanks so much. I know I'm going to enjoy it.

Sandra Parshall said...

Joanna, giant pandas are not related to raccoons. DNA analysis has proved that pandas are bears. And even our growing boy Tai couldn't eat 175 pounds of bamboo in 14 hours! Normal consumption is around 40 pounds in 24 hours.

Thank god Tai seems to like the bamboo in Bifengxia. My biggest worry about him was that he might refuse the food. But he has been eating well and I'm sure he enjoys the pats and ear scratches from Mr. Wu. I am far more worried about little Mei Lan, who is having a hard time adjusting, even though Heather, her Atlanta keeper, is still with her.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you got to see Tai before he left. And your blog is wonderful. However, I'd just like to make a couple of comments. First, Tai never did have to learn Madarin. He was trained with hand signals. It's Mei Lan that needed the translator!

The word "panda" means "eater of bamboo." While there were some scientists who thought Giant Pandas might be related to raccoons, it is not true. DNA confirms that Giant Pandas are, indeed, bears. The Red Panda (or Lesser Panda) is distantly related to the raccoon, but not the Giant Panda.

And I think there's a typo -- you probably meant to say 75 lbs. of bamboo. Even Tai couldn't eat his weight in bamboo in a day!

Thank you for visiting Tai and sharing your experience. You came on a good day and at a good time. Tai is happiest when the ground is covered with snow and bamboo!

Monica Ferris said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Monica Ferris said...

I agree with signlady, paper made of panda poo is too weird. I might stop and look at it in a zoo shop, but I couldn't bring myself to handle it unless I was wearing plastic gloves -- and maybe not even then.

Monica Ferris said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Actually, Monica, it's not that big a deal. Paper, as you know, is just processed pulp. In this case, the panda does the processing, the pulp is sanitized and spread into sheets.

A far weirder use of animal poo are the necklaces sold by the Bloomington IL zoo of reindeer dung. The zoo made $16,000 last year selling these trinkets. All that money went back into the zoo, which is a cute little place that I used to visit with my son.

Now, if I could just FIND the dog poop out in the snow...I could experiment with it since I CAN'T LEAVE MY HOUSE AND WE HAVE ANOTHER SNOWFALL COMING TOMORROW!

signlady217 said...

We have rain here, and my mom said they have snow coming down on top of the sleet/ice they got last night. Yuck! I don't think very many of us are planning on getting out of our houses today! (I guess the groundhog saw his shadow!) I hope everyone's power/heat stay on.

Betty Hechtman said...

I bet you have cabin fever, Joanna. I hope you get out soon.

I love journals, but the panda poo one didn't sound very appealing.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Thanks for the corrections, everyone!

Going to the zoo in the winter is great. The animals are active, and there are fewer crowds. I highly recommend it.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

According to Jane McGrath:

The giant panda shares characteristics with both the red panda and bears. As a result, scientists have argued on how to classify giant pandas.
But that wasn't the end of the story. In fact, this tug-of-war over whether the giant panda is closer to a bear or to a red panda has been going on for several decades. Is it a little bear or a big raccoon? Here's a rundown of some of the characteristics that each side has going for it:
Similarities to a red panda: Both giant and red pandas eat bamboo, grip bamboo the same way and share similar snout, teeth and paw features, as well as a distinct resemblance [source: Schaller].
Similarities to a bear: Obviously, the giant panda strikes many as a bear because it has a very similar shape and size. But the giant panda also shares the characteristic shaggy fur and walks and climbs like a bear [source: Maher].

And she concludes:
Some DNA studies have shown that the giant panda is closer to the bear family while the red panda is indeed closer to the raccoon family. Nevertheless, these results are inconclusive, and the argument remains unresolved.

For more information go to this link:

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Okay, let's try that link once more:

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

And here's the entire article citation:

McGrath, Jane. "Why don't pandas hibernate?." 10 July 2008.

08 February 2010.

(With special thanks to my sister Jane who found this.)