WASHINGTON — No matter the distance or the weather, Jane Christensen was determined to see the giant pandas before they left Washington.
Now in her 60s, Ms Christensen told AFP she had been captured by the species’ magical cuteness over a half-century ago, when China first gifted two pandas to the United States.
“I’ve had ‘panda-monium’ ever since,’ she said under a chilly rain outside the Smithsonian National Zoo’s panda exhibit — hundreds of miles from her home in Michigan.
All three of the zoo’s pandas are leaving for China by the end of the year, bringing at least a temporary end to a decades-old connection between the cuddly animal and the US capital.
At the Smithsonian Zoo, millions of dollars have been spent on the pandas’ enclosure and studies, especially related to breeding, including a popular 24-hour “Panda Cam” to monitor their behaviour and health.
“We’ve been watching on the live cam every day leading up to this point,” said Ms Heidi Greco, who travelled hours by car from Ohio with her family.
Her daughter Stormy, who had on a panda hat and carried a just-bought panda umbrella, is “obsessed with pandas”, Ms Greco said.
The family had watched the pandas make some laps around their separate outdoor enclosures, then passed through an indoor viewing area where visitors could watch the animals eat snacks and bamboo up close.
Eight years later, with mounting tensions over Taiwan and continuing trade disputes between the two powers, the panda exhibit is about to be closed.
The Chinese government tends to “bestow” pandas on “nations with whom China’s relations are on the upswing, as a form of soft power projection”, said Mr Kurt Tong, a former high-ranking US diplomat and managing partner of the Asia Group consultancy.
“In that respect, given the current tenor of US-China relations it is not surprising that Chinese authorities are allowing panda contracts with US zoos to expire,” Mr Tong said in an email to AFP.
He noted that the loans also help China “augment the panda conservation budget”.
The Smithsonian pays US$500,000 annually to its Chinese conservation group partner, the zoo said.