On November 19, 2019, Bei Bei the giant panda left the Smithsonian National Zoo for a new home in China. In the weeks leading up to his departure, thousands of visitors descended upon the zoo to see him one last time. Many were Washington, D.C. residents who have watched Bei Bei grow since he was a cub. Others traveled from as far as Europe to wish him well on his journey.
With ten days of non-stop panda-themed festivities, the National Zoo encouraged both visitors and the media to show their appreciation for Bei Bei and his family. Since China first gifted the United States a pair of giant pandas in 1972, the panda program has been one of the zoo’s most popular exhibits, as well as a symbol of goodwill between the two countries. Today, though, that program could be at risk. Bei Bei’s parents, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, are on a long-term lease from the Chinese government, which ends in 2020. Speculation that political tensions between the United States and China could interfere with the lease’s renewal - leaving the zoo with no pandas whatsoever - made many feel the loss of Bei Bei even more acutely.
This story documents the public’s demonstrations of love for Bei Bei’s in the days leading up to his send-off, and attempts to offer a glimpse of how Bei Bei and the rest of the Smithsonian’s panda program have raised a vulnerable species of wildlife into a cultural phenomenon that transcends age or background.