Mei Lan heading to China on Feb. 4

That's in part because Washington's National Zoo let the news out of the, er, habitat on Monday that its own beloved giant panda, Tai Shan, was China-bound that same day. The Washington Post reported that the "National Zoo's reigning prince of bears" would share a FedEx flight with "a panda traveling to China from a zoo in Atlanta."

Oh, the insult, piled right on top of all of Atlanta's panda separation anxiety. Mei Lan, of course, is no no-name panda. Her name translates as "Atlanta Beauty," and she was christened it in celebration of being first panda born in captivity at Zoo Atlanta, on Sept. 6, 2006.

But on Tuesday, the Grant Park attraction didn't seem particularly prepared to crow about Mei Lan's imminent departure, saying that it was still working on logistical and contractual details. Late in the afternoon, spokeswoman Keisha Hines revealed the zoo was planning a gala going-away party for 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, with details to be announced later this week.

Zoo Atlanta expects Mei Lan to remain on regular view through Sunday, and for her schedule to be less predictable in her final days in Atlanta as she trains for travel, including getting familiarized with her crate.

When it launched its Give So They Stay fund-raising campaign last June to extend its giant panda loan with China, Zoo Atlanta made it clear that parents Lun Lun and Yang Yang would be staying along with male cub Xi Lan ("Atlanta's Joy"), 1, but that 3-year-old Mei Lan would be China-bound early this year.

Zoo Atlanta reached a deal with Chinese officials in December to extend its decade-long panda loan five years, and confirmed a February departure for Mei Lan, the product of a fine family tree who is considered a stellar candidate for breeding. Still,the release of the specific date was hard for fans of the big-bellied mammals to stomach.

"Her departure is bittersweet for Lani's thousands of fans all over the world," said Atlantan Brenda Prather, a zoo volunteer. "We wish her well, but will miss her terribly."

Once on the ground at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in southwest China, Mei Lan will have many things to adjust to.

One big change will be language. The 20 commands she knows, such as "paw" or "lie down, " will suddenly be spoken in a Sichuan dialect. Bamboo, the panda diet staple, will taste different, too, since the species grown here are different than the ones in the Sichuan province. Though adult pandas live a solitary existence, except when mating, Mei Lan will nonetheless have to get used to the sight, smells and sounds of new peers.

Zoo Atlanta curator of carnivores Rebecca Snyder has said Mei Lan, who will be old enough to experience her first estrous cycle but a little young to get pregnant, probably won't mate during her first year at Chengdu.

"They usually wait until they're 4 1/2, but it will be really nice for her to be around males and adjusted to that whole thing, " the curator said.

The nonstop flight carrying Mei Lan and Tai Shan is scheduled to depart early in the morning of Feb. 4 from Dulles International Airport.

Some reports have suggested the American born-in-captivity pandas could become a "couple," but the Chinese are unlikely to allow that, since, as Atlanta fan Prather points out, Mei Lan and Tai Shan are cousins, and not of the kissing varietal.

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