Zoo releases details of panda Mei Lan's farewell, China flight

Details of her farewell celebration and long journey were revealed Thursday morning at the Grant Park attraction.

The celebration, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday (free with zoo admission), will include a chance to make farewell cards, listen to keeper talks, watch dragon dancers perform and view a display of memorabilia documenting the life of the first panda born in Zoo Atlanta captivity.

The guest of honor will be the main attraction, of course. And for those who can't make the bash, keepers said she will remain on view through Wednesday.

In Thursday’s predawn, Mei Lan will be trucked to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport by a FedEx convoy. There, she’ll board what’s being dubbed the “FedEx Panda Express” – a new 777 Freighter with super-sized panda decals on both sides of the nose – and fly to Washington.

At Dulles International Airport, she’ll be joined on-board by her cousin Tai Shan, a 4 ½-year-old male born at the National Zoo. Safe inside custom-built transport containers, the pandas will depart Washington in the late morning Thursday and arrive in Chengdu in late afternoon Friday. Considered excellent candidates for breeding in the next year or two, they will become residents of Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

The flight from Washington to Chengdu should take 14 ½ hours. Mei Lan will have plenty of snacks, including 50 kilos of bamboo, sweet potatoes, bananas, apples and nutritional biscuits.

One of Zoo Atlanta keepers, Heather Roberts, will accompany Mei Lan and stay in Chengdu for a week to ease her transition. Roberts said she campaigned for the job, sending curators a list of reasons why she’d be the best choice, including that she has helped care for Mei Lan her whole life, has handled a lot of her training and has a good relationship with the bear.

“My main goal is to make Mei Lan happy during the trip and her adjustment there,” she said.

Zoo Atlanta president and CEO Dennis Kelly, who will assume leadership of the National Zoo next week, said Mei Lan’s departure was “bittersweet for me personally and for Atlanta and all of Georgia.”

Roberts said she was sure she’d shed tears in the end. "She’s our baby, our first baby," the keeper said. "Although we’re very excited for her, it will be sad. It will be hard to say goodbye.”

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