On Sunday, November 17, I said goodbye to a giant panda who has been a major part of my life for the past four years. Bei Bei, along with one of his beloved keepers and a veterinarian, departed two days later for China aboard a personalized FedEx flight to Chengdu. I have attempted to write this story several times, and each time the pain of his departure was too much to allow me to focus. I still write this through tears, which might sound silly to many, but Bei Bei is a very special bear. He has lived up to his name, which means “precious treasure” in Mandarin—he’s a local, national, and worldwide treasure for sure. And most importantly, he’s an incredible ambassador for his species.
In 2014, when I accepted a job in the DC area, one of the perks of relocating from Boston was living close to the giant pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. I had followed the birth and first year of Bao Bao remotely, and she captured my heart immediately upon arriving in DC. (Even when I was in town for my job interview, I rushed to the zoo to catch a glimpse of the celebrity before I had to catch my flight. I saw only her fuzzy legs but promised her I would return soon.) Upon my permanent arrival to the city, Bao Bao was a spunky, independent, adorable ball of fluff. She entertained her fans with her acroBAOtics and sass, tumbling around her yard, tormenting the flora. As a newcomer I knew few people in the area, so a trip to the zoo to visit the silly Miss Bao Bao always cheered me up.
A year later, Bei Bei entered the world on August 22. The event made international news; he was an instant celebrity. I viewed the birth* live on the zoo’s panda cam and followed him and his mother almost daily as I awaited the day he would be on exhibit. (I am forever grateful to the zoo for providing this 24/7 cam for people all over the globe to observe the fascinating mother-baby interaction.) Bei Bei was named a month after his birth by then–First Lady Michelle Obama and China’s counterpart, Peng Liyuan. The celebrity finally made his public debut on January 16, 2016, and as expected the Giant Panda House was swarming with visitors dying to get their first look at the fuzzy baby.
Bei Bei was an endless source of entertainment. From watching him learn to climb trees and tumble down the hill, to flashing his signature toothy grin while sleeping, almost everything he did was adorable. I’m embarrassed to admit how many photos and panda cam screenshots I’ve taken of this bear. When I was having a stressful day, or just looking for some entertainment over my lunch break, I would tune in to watch the panda cam; I would immediately feel a sense of calm and smile. Since his departure I have combed through the past four years of memories, and it has brought many smiles and tears.
In the spirit of giving thanks this week, I am thankful to this bear for changing my life.
As soon as Bei Bei made his debut, I became a regular visitor and then a member of the Friends of the National Zoo. As I made frequent weekend visits to the zoo, I naturally fell in love with many of the other animals and began supporting several different conservation efforts. Now, not only am I a giant panda lover, I can call myself a zoo supporter. I thank Bei Bei for introducing me to his wonderful neighbors. Of course, if I hadn’t become a fan of the zoo, I would not have started this blog with the determination to tell many stories about the amazing people and animals that have changed the field.
My first visit with Bei Bei in 2016. He captured my heart immediately.
Bei Bei also introduced me to wonderful people who have enriched my life in so many ways. I now have a group of friends (the Zoo Crew) that I cannot wait to meet at our “happy place” nearly every weekend. I also always anticipate the amazing photos of DC Zoo Walks to make my entire week much brighter. Sandy Gertsley’s videos capture Bei Bei’s life in such memorable ways. The humor of Marcelo Pacheco, the mastermind of the Famous Babies Club on Twitter (Bei Bei is naturally president of the club) keeps me laughing constantly. (Marcelo and his wife, who reside in Chile, are two of the most charming people, and I’m so fortunate to call them my good friends.) BooBoo Panda’s super-creative and hilarious videos have also provided comic relief. It’s amazing how many fun, kind, creative people I have met over the past four years.
I also give thanks to Mei Xiang and Tian Tian for producing three wonderful cubs for the District and for China. The city’s first panda couple (Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing) who arrived in 1972** never had a surviving cub, so what Mei and Tian have given us is truly a miracle, thanks also in part to the amazing work and care of the veterinarians and panda keepers. We need to continue to show Mei and Tian our love, even though the absence of Bei Bei has left an emptiness in the panda yards. We don’t know how much longer we have to enjoy Mama and Papa (the zoo’s contract with China will be up for negotiation at the end of 2020), so I urge everyone to take advantage of these amazing bears while they’re here. We are so incredibly fortunate to have them in DC.
On a larger scale, I also urge all of the Bei Bei fans to continue to support the National Zoo. You might be tempted not to renew your membership since the celebrity bear is no longer here, but the zoo needs us. The gorillas need a new outdoor climbing structure, the bird house under construction still isn’t yet fully funded, and several of the buildings are becoming outdated. For the benefit of the animals, please continue your FONZ membership and support the zoo’s endeavors. I also want to continue to see all of your smiling faces when I visit!
So, thank you, adorable, happy, fuzzbutt bear for enriching my life, for leading me to other amazing people at a time I needed to find my place in the city, and for creating a lifetime of memories. I look forward to following you in the next chapter of your life and hope that the future is full of the next generation of Bei Beis. You are a precious treasure. Thank you, Bei Bei.
Some favorite photos I’ve taken of Bei Bei over the past four years:
*There were actually two births, but Bei Bei’s twin, the smaller of the two, died four days later.
**In 1972 my father completed his U.S. Navy training in Bethesda, Md. I would love to think he made a trip to the zoo to visit the new arrivals!
Great piece Karie. Well done and thanks for making me cry all over again.
Karie, what a lovely tribute to a special “little” guy. The panda area is a different place without him.
Thank you! Excellent! Loved your story – so glad you were able to put your words down on paper! 😢 Thank you again! 💕
Wonderful story, Karie! Like you, I miss that PRECIOUS Bei Bei so much it hurts!!!!!!!
Huge Bei Bei fan. ❤😢❤😢❤😢
Thank you for this beautiful tribute, Karie. You said it all perfectly! Great point about the need to continue supporting the zoo. For me it means getting a few days off from work, flying and a hotel but it is so worth it. I cannot wait for my next visit,
Thank you for your piece. I’m still so sad and I never even met him in person. I, too, would watch his videos as a pick me up. He was just so adorable and made everyone so happy. I hope his keeper is doing ok. I can’t imagine what she is going through.
Awesome article Karie. Thank you for putting into words how we all feel about Bei Bei. He is a true shining light and no matter how sad or stressed you might be, Bei Bei is guaranteed to bring a smile on your face. The photos were beautiful and revived many memories of this adorable boy and his Mama. I will never stop loving him and will continue to look for any snippet I can of this sweet boy and his bear family.