Time's up for Washington, D.C.'s furriest celebrity.
Four-year-old Tai Shan, the first surviving Giant Panda born at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, will be sent to the People's Republic of China early next year, zoo officials said today.
Giant Pandas born at the National Zoo belong to China and are supposed to be sent back after their second birthdays for breeding, according to the panda loan agreement between the Chinese government and zoo officials.
Tai Shan was granted a two-year extension in April 2007 but will not be allowed to stay with his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who will remain at the Washington zoo until December 2010, barring any future negotiations.
While all of Washington will surely mourn the day they have to bid farewell to the beloved Tai Shan, there is perhaps nobody sadder to see him go than Lisa Stevens.
Stevens, the primate curator at the National Zoo, has raised Tai Shan since he was born and has spent nearly every day with the panda.
"I feel sad," Stevens told ABCNews.com. "I feel that now I have to enjoy every day I have left with him."
Tai Shan, who weighs 190 pounds, has developed a personality of his own, Stevens said, and is confident and flexible, characteristics that she says will help him adjust to life in China.
"He deals with change very well so we're confident that he'll transition back to China easily," Stevens said.
As for Tai Shan's favorite pastimes, Stevens said, he likes to "eat and sleep, with an emphasis on sleep."
Indeed, Tai Shan slept through most of the news conference this morning announcing his upcoming journey to China.
The Chinese Embassy in the United States did not return messages for comment.
"Tai Shan is a fixture here, he is a celebrity," Stevens said. "Because he was born on our Web cam, people have been able to follow him from birth onward. They became connected to him.
"People know the history of the pandas here and all of the years we tried to produce a cub and they didn't survive," she said, referencing the first pandas given to the zoo by China in 1973, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, who never had a cub survive more than a few days. "Everyone was rooting for Tai Shan."
Tens of millions of people visit the panda cam on the zoo's Web site annually to catch a glimpse of Tai Shan and his parents roaming around their enclosure, according to zoo officials,
Millions more visit Washington for in-person visits with the fuzzy creatures and lines to the panda exhibit often stretch around the zoo, Stevens said.
Tai Shan's face has adorned everything from postage stamps to a special line of merchandise at the zoo's boutique and the panda can even put "documentary star" on his resume. "A Panda is Born," a documentary about the National Zoo's panda breeding program, features Tai Shan.
"His identity extends well beyond Washington, D.C.," Stevens said. "He's the nation's cub."
Jan Berris, the vice president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, said pandas have been capturing the hearts of Americans since they were first gifted to the national zoo in 1973, after President Richard Nixon traveled to China.
"China gave two Giant Pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, to the U.S. as gifts of the Chinese government in the 1970s to try and open up exchanges between the two countries," Berris said.