Updated 10/17/2006 1:57 PM ET
By Liz Szabo, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON – The giant pandas of the National Zoo have long dabbled
Tai Shan (pronounced tie-SHON), the zoo’s much-loved baby panda,
showed an early preference for a certain rubber bucket, which doubled
as a playpen and lounge chair in his old enclosure. Lately, the
feisty 15-month-old has been redesigning his outdoor habitat,
stripping leaves and bark off favorite trees.
So zoo officials say it was only natural that they let Tai and his
parents help design their rolling, rocky new home in the zoo’s $53
million Fujifilm Giant Panda Habitat and Asia Trail, which opens Oct.
17. Lisa Stevens, the curator for giant pandas, says zoo staff
carefully observed their star attractions when developing a new panda
exhibit. The zoo added larger trees to stand up to the panda’s rough
treatment, along with several pools and waterfalls to keep them cool.
When designing a spot for the pandas to get away from it all, the zoo
opted for a “water-cooled grotto,” instead of one chilled by blowing
air, because the pandas seemed to prefer it.
The zoo also nearly doubled the size of the panda habitat, which is
now 40,000 square feet.
“I can lose the pandas in this exhibit, which is a nice thing,”
Stevens says. She says the enclosure is big enough to accommodate
additional youngsters, in case Tai’s mother, Mei Xiang (may-SHONG)
gives birth again next year.
Although the rambunctious Tai has only had access to his new digs for
a few weeks, he’s already begun trashing it. “If you look really
closely, there are a lot of limbs that are already broken,” Stevens
says. “I don’t know too many trees that can hold up to their antics.”
On the zoo’s website, keepers note that they were surprised to see
Tai and his dad, Tian Tian (t-YEN t-YEN) have begun snacking on
leaves of a red maple tree. Zoo staff hadn’t realized that maple
leaves could be part of a panda diet, which centers around bamboo.
The zoo keeps father and son in separate areas, because they
typically don’t live together in the wild, Stevens says.
Visitors will be able to get closer to the pandas than in the past.
One of Tai’s favorite climbing trees stands just a few feet from a
viewing platform. The zoo built a cooled rock on the edge of the
exhibit, hoping to lure the pandas even closer. With luck, visitors
could get a nose-to-nose view of the pandas, separated only by a
The pandas are only one of seven species featured in the six-acre
Asia Trail. They share the trail with a Japanese giant salamander,
red pandas, Asian small-clawed otters, fishing cats, clouded leopards
and sloth bears. The trail is the first phase in a 10-year renovation
of the 163-acre zoo, which — at 117 years old — is the second oldest
in the country (Philadelphia has the oldest), says director John
Berry. Renovating the entire zoo — including an elephant house that
dates from the 1930s — could cost $500 million.
Eventually, the National Zoo may allow visitors into its 3,200-acre
Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va., in the Blue
Ridge mountains, Berry says. Scientists study animals there, breeding
babies both for the zoo and for release into the wild. Berry notes
that the research center is geared toward science, and would provide
a very different experience from the safari parks run by other
On the Asia Trail, many of the new habitats give animals lots of
vertical climbing room. Visitors can watch the tree-climbing red
pandas which looked like a cross between an rust-orange cat and a
raccoon from two vantage points, gazing up from a spot at the base
of the trail and, later, from a higher section of the trail.
Berry says the facility changed the way it exterminates pests after
the deaths of two red pandas in 2003, who died after eating rat
poison buried in their yard.
The trail provides underwater views of the otters and fishing cats,
While the 18-pound fishing cats aren’t much bigger than household
felines, they’re much fonder of water. They’ve even been known to
dive head-first into a pond, says reproductive scientist JoGayle
Howard. On a recent visit, one of the fishing cats seemed to think
nothing of wading shoulder-deep, stalking and later devouring one of
the tiny fish in her pond.
Day-time visitors may be more likely to get a good view of these cats
than the sleek but aloof clouded leopard. The zoo built a tall
enclosure with several towering trees, Howard says, after research
showed that spotted leopards tend to be less stressed when they have
vertical climbing space.
The zoo has had better success breeding clouded leopards since
researchers found a way to make males less aggressive, Howard says.
Pre-pubescent males who are housed with females are less likely to
In spite of their name, Ades says the black, shaggy sloth bears are
a “very dynamic” species. On a recent visit, 8-month-old Balawat
alternatively used a hollow honeydew melon as hockey puck and face
mask. He later stood on his hind legs, pressing his face and muddy
brown paws against the glass.
Asia Trail curator Tony Barthel says the sloth bears may provide the
most excitement in the new exhibit.
The zoo has built several imitation ant hills. At feeding time,
zookeepers will connect the hills to real insects, giving the sloth
bears a chance to do what they love best: suck up bugs.
“They have incredible sucking force,” Barthel says. “Like a Hoover