Expert advice for visiting the pandas at the National Zoo

Expert advice for visiting the pandas at the National Zoo
Placeholder while article actions load

It started with two goodwill ambassadors named Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, whose 1972 arrival in Washington included an official welcome from first lady Pat Nixon. Fifty years later, it’s impossible to discuss the Smithsonian’s National Zoo without giving special prominence to the giant pandas — especially the succession of cubs that have captivated and charmed visitors since 2005.

Through Aug. 27, the zoo is marking the giant panda program’s golden anniversary with special events, but going to see Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and rambunctious little Xiao Qi Ji can make any day delightful. Beyond the demonstrations and discussions over the next week, we also asked the experts to tell us how to make the most of a visit to the Panda House.

What’s the latest on zoo hours and admission?

The zoo was one of the first Smithsonian sites to return to a daily operating schedule. It’s open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the last entrance at 3 p.m., and admission remains free. However, visitors do need to reserve daily passes, which can be claimed up to 30 days in advance. If the date you want is full, be patient: The zoo says more passes are regularly released both one week and one day out. It’s also important to note that these are not timed passes — if you claim passes for April 17, you can enter at any time after 8 a.m. However, you should reserve the passes before arriving at the zoo.

Giant pandas came to the zoo 50 years ago and changed D.C. forever

What is Xiao Qi Ji’s schedule like? What are the best times to see him eating or playing?

Watching Xiao Qi Ji climb trees, fall out of trees and scamper after his mother is a big part of the pandas’ appeal. “Now that he’s 1½ years old, he follows a similar schedule to Tian Tian and Mei Xiang,” says Laurie Thompson, the assistant curator of giant pandas. “Giant pandas tend to be most active early in the morning, from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., and in the early afternoon, from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.”

Is there a fun or interesting vantage point for seeing the pandas that visitors often overlook?

Thompson reminds visitors that there are both upper and lower walkways in the outdoor viewing area. “One of Xiao Qi Ji’s favorite spots is an evergreen tree in the outdoor habitat,” she says. “If he is up the tree when you arrive, head up the upper walkway — there’s a chance you’ll have a great eye-to-eye view.”

If a visitor arrives at the outdoor enclosure and doesn’t see any pandas right away, is there a particular place they like to hide?

“Look up!” Thompson says. “Xiao Qi Ji likes to climb trees.”

Also, look around and see if there are any humans in the enclosure, which might be a clue. “If the pandas hear keepers cleaning near the Panda House, they may trot over and ‘supervise’ them as they go about their daily duties,” Thompson adds. “Just like his father, Tian Tian, Xiao Qi Ji often approaches the mesh and seems to enjoy when keepers tickle his paws, scratch his head or give his ears a gentle tug. He also likes to play in the hose spray.”

A Chinese cigarette tin launched D.C.’s love affair with pandas

Are there particular times for panda feedings?

Food is placed in the giant panda habitats before visitors arrive, around 7:30 a.m., and then again at human lunchtime — usually between 12:30 and 1 p.m., says keeper Nicole MacCorkle. Beyond their beloved bamboo, the pandas receive fruits and vegetables. MacCorkle says they “seem to have a taste for sweeter foods, including sweet potatoes, apples and pears.”

As any parent knows, just because you put food in front of a youngster doesn’t mean they’re going to eat it. “Xiao Qi Ji has tried many different foods, and sweet potato is his favorite by far,” MacCorkle says. But “just like his father, Tian Tian, and sister, Bao Bao, he isn’t too fond of carrots.”

Giant pandas have been stars at the National Zoo for 50 years

I’ve watched videos of Xiao Qi Ji eating ice pops on the zoo website. When do the pandas get those?

Pandas receive treats multiple times each day, MacCorkle says. A favorite are fruitsicles — ice pops made of diluted fruit juice and water — that serve double duty by keeping the animals cool on warm days. “They receive fruitsicles a couple times per week,” MacCorkle says. “However, keepers don’t give them out on a set schedule.”

What are the balls and toys the pandas are playing with?

Just being handed a pile of bamboo every day isn’t stimulating for the pandas. To encourage them to forage, MacCorkle says, keepers hide treats and food items in contraptions called puzzle feeders. “The bears have to think about how to get the food out, then roll, spin or shake their feeders to get the tasty treats inside,” MacCorkle explains.

Do any of the pandas prefer being inside to outside?

A giant panda’s native habitat is in forests in the mountains of south-central China, which, MacCorkle points out, “does not typically get as hot as Washington, D.C., does in the summer. Giant pandas prefer temperatures of about 75 degrees Fahrenheit or below.” While the indoor areas of the Panda House are air-conditioned, pandas have opportunities to cool off outdoors in pools, caves and shady trees.

Is there an easy way to know whether the pandas are inside or outside the Panda House before I get there?

MacCorkle suggests that visitors pull up the Panda Cam while walking to the exhibit. A team of volunteers keeps the camera pointed at the bears during regular zoo hours, and it’s easy to tell whether they’re indoors or out.

How is Xiao Qi Ji’s personality different from that of Bei Bei and his other siblings?

“Watching this little cub develop into the smart, observant, inquisitive and goofy bear he is today has brought us a lot of joy,” says keeper Mariel Lally. “When Xiao Qi Ji investigates his environment, he tends to be more cautious than his brothers and sister were. Whether climbing up or down, he takes his time and is careful about his footing. He very rarely misses a step.”

Pandas are solitary animals, and it’s customary for the zoo to separate mother and cub after the cub is weaned. How long will Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji be in the same enclosure?

A detailed explanation from Thompson, the assistant giant panda curator:

“Currently, Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji have ample opportunities to interact. In the wild, a weaning giant panda cub would gradually move further away from its mother, until it is unable to see or hear her. To encourage Xiao Qi Ji’s independence, we have given Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji access to new outdoor and indoor habitats so that he can eat and explore enrichment items on his own for brief periods.

“These changes will help Xiao Qi Ji acclimate to adulthood, since giant pandas are solitary in the wild. Determining when the time is ‘right’ for separation is a delicate balance, as keeping a mother and cub together for longer than one or both are comfortable would eventually cause aggression between them.

“As seasoned experts in giant panda behavior, we know exactly what behavioral cues to look for. Once a cub is comfortable and confident in a new yard, it is best to give them independence. Tai Shan remained with Mei Xiang until he was 19½ months old; Bao Bao and Bei Bei separated from Mei Xiang when they were 18 months old.

“Normally, the arrival of spring ushers in giant panda breeding season. This year, however, will be different. At 23 years old, Mei Xiang is considered post-reproductive. With no breeding recommendation from our Chinese colleagues this year, we have a more relaxed timeline for Xiao Qi Ji’s separation.”

What are Bei Bei, Bao Bao and Tai Shan up to these days?

Washington’s panda fans all have a favorite cub, so we asked the zoo to update us on former occupants of the Panda House. Tai Shan, known as “Butterstick” due to his size at birth in 2005, was the first cub in National Zoo history to survive more than a few days. He moved to China in 2010 to participate in breeding research and now lives at the Wolong Giant Panda Reserve in Sichuan, where he fathered a cub that was born in 2020.

Bao Bao, the first surviving female cub born at the zoo, left for China in 2017, when she was 3½ years old. Like her older brother, she is now at the Wolong Giant Panda Reserve. She is the mother of three cubs: a female born in 2020 and twin males born in 2021.

Bei Bei, whom many expected to be the last cub born to Mei Xiang and Tian Tian (surprise!), traded the National Zoo for China in 2019. He is at the Bifengxia Panda Base and is expected to enter a breeding program when he reaches maturity.

The current panda family is expected to stay in Washington until December 2023.

The “Pandaversary” officially began in March, but it kicks into high gear this weekend.

April 16 is the 50th anniversary of Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing moving into the zoo, and a day-long Pandaversary Party features a lion dance (noon) and performances by the Gin Dance Company (11 a.m. and 1:45 p.m.) and musicians Shu-Ting and Huai-En Tsai (10 a.m. and 1 p.m.). The Smithsonian Channel’s documentary about Xiao Qi Ji, “The Miracle Panda,” makes its world premiere in the auditorium at the zoo’s visitor center, with screenings at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Seating is limited and on a first-come, first-served basis. Humans aren’t the only ones who get to enjoy the day: All three pandas receive special treats in their outdoor yards at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m.

April 17 is a little less busy, but the schedule includes a screening of “The Miracle Panda” at the visitor center at 1 p.m. and a performance by the Chinese dulcimer-meets-world-music duo Dong Xi from 2 to 3:30 p.m.

Easter Monday has more attractions than pandas, including an Easter egg hunt on Lion-Tiger Hill, live music, games and animal demonstrations that include tiger feedings. Still, the zoo’s annual family celebration does include a visit from the Easter Panda. 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

April 21: You’ve seen Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and Xiao Qi Ji. Now hear from the people who know them best during a panel discussion with zookeepers, veterinarians and scientists at the visitor center’s auditorium. “Celebrating 50 Panda-mazing Years” is a behind-the-scenes look at the giant panda program, with experts covering such topics as “How to Make Baby Pandas” and “A Virtual Visit to China: Where Are Our Smithsonian’s National Zoo-born Giant Pandas Today?” Presentations are followed by a Q&A with the speakers. Doors open at 6:30. $10 zoo members; $20 general public.

May 26: Brew at the Zoo, the zoo’s annual beer festival, “will be giant panda themed,” organizers say, though they haven’t specified what that means. Maybe a table full of bamboo beers — yes, such things exist — in addition to more than 50 craft beers and ciders available for unlimited sampling? Tickets go on sale to the general public on May 5. 6 to 9 p.m. $60.

Panda birthday parties: All the panda family birthdays fall in late summer, and the zoo plans to celebrate Mei Xiang (July 22), Xiao Qi Ji (Aug. 21) and Tian Tian (Aug. 27) in turn with special ice cakes and other treats.

More visitors coming to see the pandas means more visitors who need food and drinks and ways to keep the kids happy. Eateries inside the zoo and restaurants and shops in surrounding neighborhoods are competing for this business with panda-themed specials and discounts. Here are a few worth noting; all deals in Woodley Park and Cleveland Park run through May 16.

Ben and Jerry’s: A “giant panda sundae” is made with vanilla and chocolate ice cream, whipped topping, rainbow sprinkles and two “ears” made of Oreo cookies. It’s available through April 22.

Dolci Gelati: Panda-shaped cookies are available Saturday through Monday.

Vintage Views: The pop-up trailer bar, located near the zoo’s Great Meadow, serves “panda dreams,” a coconut mojito served with a bamboo straw, Saturday through Monday.

Baked by Yael: Located across from the zoo’s main gate, this bakery sells panda-shaped cake pops in chocolate, red velvet and birthday cake flavors. All zoo visitors receive 10 percent off. 3000 Connecticut Ave. NW.

Coldstone Creamery: Show a same-day zoo ticket at the Cleveland Park ice cream shop for 10 percent off any order. 3501 Connecticut Ave. NW.

Duke’s Counter: The English-inspired bar and restaurant across Connecticut Avenue has created a menu of $12 panda cocktails. (Think “pandarita” and “panda colada.”) Children younger than 10 receive a free panda cookie. 3000 Connecticut Ave. NW.

Han Palace: A dim sum restaurant from the owner of Rockville’s China Garden and Tysons’ Han Palace opened earlier this month in Woodley Park. Take 10 percent off everything from soup dumplings to Peking duck. 2649 Connecticut Ave. NW.

Taco City: The local mini-chain, which made The Post’s list of the area’s best tacos in 2019, offers 10 percent discounts at its Woodley Park location. 2604 Connecticut Ave. NW.

3001 Connecticut Ave. NW. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free; advance passes required.