A Piece of My Heart

Submitted by Angela G. of Washington, D.C. 

"My mother, Elaine Washburn, was an Asia Trail volunteer interpreter in the early 2000's. Mom had been a docent at the Ross Park Zoo in our hometown. When she moved to D.C. to be close to me, it didn’t take her long to become a National Zoo volunteer. 

Mom didn't actually want to be placed with the pandas. She asked to be trained in an area the Zoo found it more difficult to recruit volunteers. But the arrival of Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, and hopes there would be baby pandas in the not-too-distant future, the area near the pandas was where Elaine was most needed. 

Elaine became one of the pandas' biggest fans. She enthusiastically shared her knowledge with visitors. She made friends with other panda enthusiasts all over the United States thanks to internet groups. In the summer of 2007, she decided she was going to make a point to see all the pandas in the U.S. She traveled to Atlanta, Memphis and finally to San Diego to meet up with a group of other panda-loving friends. She had such a good time that summer. 

Even a three-city tour wasn't enough pandas for Elaine. Unable to afford one of the posh Smithsonian-run tours to China, Elaine and her friend Angela (who was a panda cam operator) decided they would put together a budget trip to China to visit the China Conservations and Research Center for giant pandas at Beifengxia. It was all arranged and booked. Mom had a hernia as the result of having had an ostomy while healing from a perforated bowel a few years before. In advance of this trip, she decided she'd better have that hernia repaired. Unfortunately, mom died of a post-operative infection on September 25, 2007, a week after the surgery. 

My husband Craig, then one-year-old Graham, and I received condolences from panda fans all over the country. It was amazing to see how many people my mom had touched. The following February, I was blessed to meet a group of those friends when they visited D.C. Graham and I visited the zoo with them. I will never forget Graham's reaction when he saw the panda and that he knew the right word for it. He excitedly exclaimed, "panda, panda, PANDA!" 

It's been 16 years since we lost mom. Sometimes, when I need to feel close to her, I visit the Zoo. This isn't just because there is a memorial bench in the panda area, which we were able to donate with support from many of her friends. Though I seldom go to the Zoo without spending a few minutes sitting on her bench. I go there because I feel Mom's spirit there, close to the animals which fascinated her and the people who come to visit them. 

When Tian and Mei go back to China, a bit of my mom’s spirit, and a piece of my heart, will go with them."

Image courtesy of Angela G.

The Panda Memories Project

In September 2023, the Zoo invited members of the public to share their favorite moments with Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, Xiao Qi Ji and the rest of the pandas that have called Washington D.C., home. Here are their stories.