Superstar farewell for US-born, China-bound pandas

They were treated like pop idols — except for being stuck in travel crates.

Updated: Feb 05, 2010, 10:46 AM IST

Washington: They were treated like pop idols — except for being stuck in travel crates.

Adoring crowds and television viewers watched Thursday as American-born giant pandas Mei Lan and Tai Shan were loaded onto a special cargo jet for a flight to their new homes in China for breeding.

Normally placid, 3-year-old Mei Lan from Zoo Atlanta whirled and paced in her crate as flashbulbs popped. Tai Shan, a 4 1/2-year-old born in Washington, hid at first but was drawn into view as his longtime keepers at the National Zoo knelt silently at his crate to say goodbye, hand-feeding him slices of apples and pears.

One zookeeper wiped away tears. Federal police officers escorted Tai Shan to the airport, and FedEx workers transporting the pair buzzed around in "Panda Team" jackets to go with the huge panda emblem painted on their jet. News networks provided live coverage of the plane waiting on the tarmac and taking off.

As the Boeing 777`s giant engines rumbled to life, tears started to flow for panda lover Mara Strock of Burke, Va., who looked on with other invited guests.

"I love Tai Shan so much, I don`t know how I`m going to handle it," she said, watching the plane pull away.

Clutching a stuffed black-and-white bear, 10-year-old Caleigh Davis of Springfield, Va., said she was sad to see Tai Shan go but glad he could go with his cousin.

"The thing I`m most afraid of is that he`s going to eat too much food," she said, "and have a sick stomach."