US National Zoo bids farewell to pandas as government shutdown looms

'Panda Palooza' may end early if government shutdown takes place in Washington

Visitors take photos of giant panda Mei Xiang eating bamboo at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington. Reuters
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Washington's National Zoo is honouring its three giant pandas with nine days of events ahead of their return to China but stormy weather and a looming US government shutdown have put something of a damper on the festivities.

The “Panda Palooza” to honour their legacy as animal ambassadors drew a reduced crowd on Saturday because of torrential rain from Tropical Storm Ophelia, according to local news reports.

The weather forced the zoo to cancel some outdoor events at the weekend, but it did not deter some heartier visitors from across the US from flocking to the panda enclosure for one last glimpse at the threesome.

Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cub Xiao Qi Ji are scheduled to be returned in early December.

The coming week will feature panda-themed film screenings, concerts, lectures, yoga, arts and craft activities, and “tasty celebratory treats” provided by the Chinese embassy in Washington, according to the zoo's website.

The festivities could end a day sooner than planned, however, if Congress fails to provide funding for the fiscal year starting October 1 due to a continuing dispute between far-right Republicans and other politicians.

The zoo, operated by the Smithsonian Institution, receives federal funding, and would be forced to close to the public during a government shutdown, according to its website.

What is a US government shutdown?

What is a US government shutdown?

The shutdown would not disrupt animal care, but the zoo's popular live “Panda Cam” would go dark.

Mei Xiang, 25, and Tian Tian, 26, came to the zoo in 2000 under a co-operative research and breeding agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association.

The pandas were initially meant to stay 10 years, but the agreement has been renewed three times since 2010.

The zoo's giant panda programme began in 1972, when Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier at the time, donated two pandas to the US soon after Richard Nixon's historic visit to China that year.

The zoo did not say whether it has any immediate plans to acquire more giant pandas, but said on its website that it “hopes to continue this work in the future”.

Updated: September 25, 2023, 9:06 PM