Publisher's Note: We are grateful to Windland for being one of the first contributors to the Journeys Corps of Storytellers.
In September of 2000 I received a call from Tom Curley, director of marketing for Fuji Film. Fuji had just contributed $7.8 million to the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. to help build a new and improved panda habitat and conservation center. The zoo had successfully negotiated a 10 year, $10 million lease for two Giant Pandas the summer before and they were to be transported from Wolong, China to the zoo in Washington in early December ... would I like to go photograph the transfer for Fuji? YOU BET!!
So, on November 28, 2000, I set off from my home in Jackson, Wyo., for the two-day trip to Wolong in the Sichuan province of China. Tom would meet me in San Francisco and we would travel from there together through Beijing and Chengdu, China.
December 6 ...we have been in Wolong at the breeding center for the Giant Pandas for four days. Here, the zoo staff, which had been here two weeks, spent time observing the pair that we will take with us ... Mei Xiang (female) and Tian Tian (male) and talking to the Chinese panda keepers about the personalities of the two pandas. Today, we head back down the mountain on a three-hour drive to Chegdu Airport where we will load ourselves and the pandas onto the specially chartered FedEx PANDA ONE DC-10 aircraft. The flight back to Washington will be 17 hours and include a two-hour stop in Anchorage to clear US Customs and US Fish and Wildlife.
Everyone is nervous about how the pandas will tolerate being in their custom built cages for the long journey. Neither panda is given any sedatives for fear that medical issues might arise during flight. The plan is to keep them full of bamboo and treats so they are full and sleepy for the plane ride. Their big fluffy heads and pom-pom ears can be seen through the bars only when they decide to wake up for a snack or to get into a more comfortable position.
The zoo panda keepers take urine and stool samples during the flight to later test the hormone levels. This might indicate if the pandas were under any stress that was not noticeable to the observers on the plane.
IT WORKS ... not only do the pandas seem to be totally unstressed by the situation, but they sleep most of the way and the entire two hours we are on the ground in Anchorage!
We arrive at Dulles airport in Washington to throngs of media, and the pandas are loaded onto FedEX trucks to be driven by police escort to the zoo. The trucks make excellent progress and arrive at the zoo just as the sun goes down and the pandas are introduced to their new indoor home where they will spend the next month before being presented for public viewing.
December 6, 2001 ... Pandas have been at the zoo for one year. Both are happy, healthy and growing. Since both of these are still sub-adults, they spend time together playing and wrestling. This behavior will decrease as they age and become more solitary. But for now they are a wonderful sight for the one million visitors that have come to the zoo in the past year to see Washington's REAL first couple! The hope for the future is, of course, panda cubs from this pair. Only about 1,000 pandas still exist in the wild in their native China and captive breeding programs such as this one are invaluable to their continued survival.