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Washington national zoo celebrates panda cub Xiao Qi Jis 1st birthday

Washington national zoo celebrates panda cub Xiao Qi Jis 1st birthday

SUNDAY, August 22, 2021

"The relationships that we develop with our Chinese colleagues, including the ambassador, working together to save this endangered species is one of the most incredible parts" of the giant panda conservation program, said Brandie Smith, acting director of the Smithsonians National Zoo.

Xiao Qi Ji, the giant panda cub born in the national zoo in Washington, D.C., turned one on Saturday, and the zoo held a big birthday party for the little cutie featuring ice cakes and other activities to celebrate the occasion with his avid fans coming for a visit.

Staff at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute got Xiao Qi Ji's tiered cake with a large number "1" topper set up just after 7:00 a.m., placing the delicacy at the center of the outdoor ground so that reporters could easily shoot the moment Xiao Qi Ji enjoys his birthday feast.

The cake is made from frozen dilute grape, apple juices and colored water and decorated with sweet potato, apple, carrot, pear, sugar cane, banana and bamboo. Xiao Qi Ji's parents, mama Mei Xiang and papa Tian Tian, each got their own ice cakes in honor of their son's birthday.

When Xiao Qi Ji and Mei Xiang stepped out of their house, they went straight toward mama's cake. It was not until the "Xiao Qi Ji" inscript on the main cake melted that the mother-son duo finally turned their attention to the entree of the day, working on it as spectators cheered in the background.

It appeared that Xiao Qi Ji was more than satisfied with the cake, crushing the 1-shaped topper and then, after finishing the special breakfast, climbing onto his favorite tree to inspect those who came for the purpose of wishing him happy birthday.

Photo taken on May 20, 2021 shows the giant panda cub "Xiao Qi Ji" during a media preview at Smithsonian

"I've been here about four times already, even with the COVID and everything," said Yolanda Reyes, a panda lover who couldn't resist the innocence and charm of Xiao Qi Ji, and who could still vividly recall Tai Shan, Bao Bao and Bei Bei -- three other cubs Mei Xiang gave birth to in the D.C. zoo who used to live here before returning to China.

"It's been wonderful. They always have (Xiao Qi Ji) here, and you see the interaction with his mother and everything like that. It's great," said the Virginia resident.

"Xiao Qi Ji" is the Chinese expression of "little miracle" in English. People decided to name the adorable boy that way because his mother, at age 22, was the oldest giant panda to give birth in the United States. When she conceived Xiao Qi Ji, Mei Xiang had a less than 1 percent chance of having another baby.

After his miraculous birth, Xiao Qi Ji, who the keepers said is a quick learner, never stopped bringing surprise and joy to people caring for him, having not only reached a number of milestones in the past year -- such as going through his first veterinary exam, his first steps, getting his first toys and having his first taste of sweet potato -- but also adapted incredibly well to the harsh reality of the pandemic thanks to the love and caring from his keepers.

"Not only was (Mei Xiang's) age a challenge, in the best case scenario, panda breeding is challenging," said Bryan Amaral, the national zoo's senior curator. "Due to the pandemic, we had a lot of tools not available to us that we would normally use to help us be successful."

Giant panda Mei Xiang is seen in a frame grab from a video feed at Smithsonian

"We had to take a little bit of a different approach this time," Amaral said, noting that because of the extraordinary public health crisis, reproductive physiologists working with the giant panda conservation program had to share the lab space and, as a result, were unable to run samples in a timely fashion.

"I don't know if we'll use this (new approach) completely as a model in the future, but clearly the results speak for themselves," he said.

Speaking of the cooperation around Xiao Qi Ji between the national zoo and its partners in China, Brandie Smith, acting director of the zoo, told Xinhua that since there are so many experts in China who know how to take care of pandas, people here at the zoo have been calling and writing to their Chinese counterparts on a regular basis, giving updates about Xiao Qi Ji's care and growth.

"With the pandemic, we haven't been able to meet in person, but we're looking forward to doing that again as soon as we can," Smith said.

To mark the joyous day, Chinese Ambassador to the United States Qin Gang expressed his birthday wishes to Xiao Qi Ji in a video and sent the adorable baby bear a gift.

"His arrival and every bit of his growth have given us joy and hope. For us, he is a miracle," the ambassador said of Xiao Qi Ji, adding the cub "has truly added a splash of color to the exchanges between Chinese and American people."

Smith, who had watched Qin's video, said in comments to the ambassador's remarks that "the relationships that we develop with our Chinese colleagues, including the ambassador, working together to save this endangered species is one of the most incredible parts" of the giant panda conservation program.

Celebratory events were held throughout the zoo on Saturday. General visitors attending Xiao Qi Ji's birthday party received commemorative Xiao Qi Ji buttons, and registered members of the zoo were given reusable fans featuring Xiao Qi Ji's picture.

"It's nice to be able to open up and have something really fantastic to celebrate," Amaral, the senior curator, said. 

Photo taken in November 2020 shows the giant panda cub "Xiao Qi Ji" at Smithsonian