Bao Bao made her long-awaited public debut at the National Zoo this weekend, but as throngs of camera-phone-ready visitors lined up to catch a glimpse of the giant panda cub, she mostly slept, seemingly unfazed by the hype around her.
“Well, that was worth it,” Beth Houser said as she exited the Panda House Saturday with her family. Houser was visiting D.C. from Philadelphia and wasn’t one of the lucky ones who caught the five-month-old Bao Bao in her few awake moments. “Personally, animals are never that cute unless you see their faces.”
One woman who wasn’t disappointed by Bao Bao’s performance: Lisa Washam, a self-described panda fanatic who came in from Ohio just to see Bao Bao make her debut. Dressed in a large panda hat and necklace with a panda pendent, she was one of the first people in line when the doors opened at 8 a.m. Saturday. She got to see the cub as zoo keepers woke her up and carried her in front of the public for her official debut.
“They’re just magic,” said Houser, who claims to have seen every panda on display at zoos across the United States. “When you see their eyes, it’s just peaceful.”
Despite the fact that baby pandas typically sleep 20 hours a day, the zoo was expecting 10,000 visitors over the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. That’s up from 6,000 visitors who visited the National Zoo last year over the holiday weekend. In all, the National Zoo had approximately 2 million visitors in 2013; thanks to Bao Bao, it’s expecting 2.3 million in 2014.
The zoo may have free admission, but the cub brings in a lot money for them. The average person, according to a zoo spokeswoman, spends about $7 when visiting the zoo. In 2013, the National Zoo posted $4.47 million in merchandise sales and expects to see $5 million this year.
More evidence of the Bao Bao effect? Friends of the National Zoo saw an 18.3 percent increase in membership in November and December over the same period in 2012. The cheapest FONZ membership starts at $50 annually and runs up to $110 for a family premier membership.
But the zoo’s pandas come with a pretty hefty price tag. As part of a breeding agreement with China, the U.S. pays China $550,000 annually. That commitment is covered by a $4.5 million donation from David Rubenstein in 2011 to support the panda program. As part of the agreement with China, Bao Bao will be returned to China when she turns four.
Luckily for Bao Bao, panda keeper Nicole MacCorkle says pandas are extremely near-sighted, so although she knows there’s a lot of activity going on, she can’t really see the full hullabaloo around her this weekend.
“She’s taking it in stride and sleeping,” says MacCorkle.
Photo by Perry Stein.