Bei Bei’s Most Memorable Moments at the Zoo

On Tuesday, Nov. 19, giant panda Bei Bei will depart for China. As part of the cooperative breeding program with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, all giant panda cubs born at the Zoo move to China when they turn 4 years old. The majority of giant pandas under human care live in China, and the best genetic matches for Bei Bei to breed with as an adult live at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda’s (CCRCHP) bases. As we prepare to bid Bei Bei a fond farewell, we’re taking a look back at some favorite milestones and memorable moments from his time at the Zoo.

From first foods to first steps

The first years of a giant panda’s life are a whirlwind of new experiences. Bei Bei took his first steps on Nov. 9, 2015, and keepers were lucky enough to capture the moment on the Panda Cam:

Soon enough, he was running, climbing and exploring on his own. An active, growing panda has to eat. Bei Bei tasted his first sweet potato and bamboo leaves in January 2016. Later that year he tried sugar cane, and a few months after that he was chomping on carrots. Today, his favorite foods include cooked sweet potatoes, apples and sugar cane.

A warm welcome

More than 7,000 people traveled from far and wide to meet Bei Bei when he made his public debut on a Saturday in January 2016. Keeper Nicole Meese MacCorkle says it was her favorite moment with Bei Bei. “By then we obviously knew what a special bear he is, but it was so nice to be able to finally share him with the world! He is so charismatic, and that really showed that day, even though he napped through part of the media day,” she says.

That might have been the first time Bei Bei napped through a big celebration, but it wouldn’t be the last. He also snoozed through part of his first birthday party.

Seeing snow for the first time

Young giant panda cub Bei Bei experiences his first light dusting of snow in a small, behind-the-scenes area of the Smithsonian's National Zoo

When Bei Bei was about 6 months old, keepers took him outside to a small, behind-the-scenes area to explore a light dusting of snow. The young panda cub wasn’t quite sure what to make of the cold, powdery snow and headed back inside quickly.

His first experience in the snow may have been tentative, but it’s clear that over the years Bei Bei has learned to love snow:

Ahead of the learning curve

Keepers train animals around the Zoo to voluntarily participate in their veterinary care. They start with simple behaviors, such as asking an animal to touch a target with its nose. Giant pandas eventually learn to put their arms in a sleeve and hold on to a bar so veterinarians can collect blood samples.

Bei Bei was an A+ student. He was just 13 months old when he participated in his first blood draw. Keepers gave him honey water, a favorite treat, and he had no trouble holding still for the procedure. “He was the youngest of our three cubs to accomplish this,” says assistant curator Laurie Thompson. Tai Shan and Bao Bao were about twice his age when they participated in their first blood draws.

Taking a tumble out of a tree

If you’ve watched Bei Bei explore his outdoor yard over the years, then you know he likes to climb trees. That interest has inevitably led to a few tumbles. Giant pandas are excellent climbers, but luckily, they’re also built to withstand falls.

On Bei Bei’s first adventure up a tree, Mei Xiang was close by to lend a helping paw. It didn’t take long for him to start climbing on his own. Since then, we’ve watched Bei Bei tumble out of many trees, only to get right back up and try again.

“Bei Bei was the first cub that I had the privilege of working with as I started on the panda team when he was just six months old. It has been such a pleasure to watch him grow from a mother-dependent cub, to an independent and strong-willed juvenile panda,” says keeper Mariel Lally.

Precious, treasure

Bei Bei — which means “precious, treasure” in Mandarin Chinese and is complementary to his older sister’s name Bao Bao — is a fitting name for the beloved giant panda. On Sept. 25, 2015, former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, and First Lady of the People’s Republic of China, Peng Liyuan, accompanied by a group of third-grade students from the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, unfurled a pair of scrolls to reveal his name.

The special naming ceremony helped to commemorate more than four decades of scientific collaboration between the U.S. and China around giant panda conservation.

A first birthday for the books

When giant panda cubs at the Zoo turn 1 year old, we celebrate with a Zhuazhou (dra-JO) ceremony. During a traditional Zhuazhou ceremony, symbolic objects are placed in front of a baby, and the item that the baby first reaches for foretells something about his or her future.

For Bei Bei’s Zhuazhou ceremony, three posters with painted symbols were placed in his yard. He had the choice of peaches (a symbol of longevity), bamboo (representing good health and habitat) or a traditional Chinese red “knot” (symbolizing friendship and luck).

In an unexpected turn of events, Bei Bei’s mother Mei Xiang chose the red knot for him!

Giant panda Mei Xiang selects the Zhuazhou symbolizing luck and friendship on behalf of Bei Bei

A snooze and a sneeze

Bei Bei’s time at the Zoo has often been full of excitement. Keepers, volunteers and visitors have also been lucky to witness the quieter moments of an average day in the life of a giant panda. Sometimes it’s these small moments that bring the most joy, like the time Bei Bei’s peaceful slumber was briefly interrupted by a surprising sneeze:

Join us for a series of online and on-site celebratory events to bid giant panda Bei Bei a fond farewell, and share your favorite Bei Bei memories with us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter with #ByeByeBeiBei.