Atlanta's panda princess leaving the nest

Mei Lan going to China to help bring baby pandas into the world

If it doesn’t, there’s always artificial insemination.

Panda fans, practice your goodbyes. Mei Lan is leaving the city of her birth on Thursday. She’s heading to China to help propagate one of the world’s most imperiled species.

She’s not your average bear. Forget those crummy little snacks the airlines hand out to passengers: Mei Lan’s traveling with 40 pounds of biscuits, fruit and bamboo. She’s taking her favorite toys. She has her own sleeping quarters. She’s even bringing along a human for company.

Mei Lan’s boarding a new FedEx Boeing 777 for the 14.5-hour trip. It’s decorated with a panda decal that wraps around the fuselage like a giant hand. Dignitaries will wave as the plane lifts off from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International.

For almost 3½ years, she’s been Zoo Atlanta’s reigning princess of bears. A Washington paper used a similarly regal term in describing a 4-year-old male panda leaving the National Zoo on the same flight as our bear. His claim to greatness: He’s Mei Lan’s cousin. Like his prettier relative, the kid, named Tai Shan, has good genes.

And those genes are needed, a world away.

Homeward bound

The youngsters are headed home, biologically speaking. Their species, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, originated in China, and today most of the world’s pandas — there are only about 1,600 — live in the southwestern mountains of Chengdu, China. Tai Shan is headed to Bifengxia panda base outside Ya’an. Mei Lan’s new home is Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where bamboo forests cast deep, green shadows.

The research base produced Lun Lun and Yang Yang, parents to Mei Lan and her kid brother, 1½-year-old Xi Lan (more on him in a bit). The parents were cubs themselves when they came to Atlanta in November 1999 through a 10-year agreement with China that’s been extended.

Their arrival was about as low-key as a tidal wave. On the day of their zoo debut, people began lining up at 6:30 a.m. to see them.

Small wonder. Lun Lun was a cute cub and is a beautiful grown-up. With her wide face and brilliant eyes, she’s the Megan Fox of her breed. Yang Yang’s intimates say he’s more Robin Williams than George Clooney — fun to watch, if not the most handsome guy around.

On paper, they were a good match to make babies. In real life?

Yang Yang showed more interest in bamboo than babe bears. After waiting a couple of years for him to step up, physiologically speaking, experts took matters in their own hands and tried artificial insemination. Their efforts failed in 2004 and 2005. Then, on a March 2006 night, a slender moon outside their window, a handful of scientists tried again. On Sept. 6, one day shy of a full moon, out popped a little pink thing — a baby girl.

Our love affair began at that moment.

A panda kinda guy

Click! Andrea Rafferty looked at the plodding, 200-pound creature in her camera viewfinder.

Click! Mei Lan looked back with eyes as bright and dark as coffee beans. She turned.

Click! Mei Lan’s posterior, captured for posterity.

Rafferty, 55, loves Mei Lan. She joined the zoo so she could make unlimited visits to see favorite bear. When she’s stuck in traffic, Rafferty daydreams about Mei Lan.

“Every day is a good day,” she said, “if it has a panda in it.”

There’s something about a panda, agreed Suzanne Braden, co-founder and director of Pandas International.

“You can never underestimate their cuteness factor,” said Braden, who heads the Colorado-based nonprofit organization, which raises money for panda research. “There’s a magical quality about pandas that people like.”

The magic is hard to resist. Just ask the other big shot leaving Zoo Atlanta, Dennis Kelly.

Kelly was the zoo’s president and CEO until Friday, his last day on the job. On Feb. 15, he takes over as boss of the National Zoo.

On Thursday, his next-to-last day at Zoo Atlanta, Kelly put on a favorite necktie, bought for a couple of bucks in a Chinese market. It’s red silk, dotted with peanut-sized pandas.

Kelly’s a panda guy. Like a worried dad, he paced about in the hours leading up to Mei Lan’s birth and drank champagne when she arrived. He was just as pleased when little boy Xi Lan — another artificial insemination success — came along in late August 2008.

Kelly headed up Give So They Stay, a money-raising campaign to extend the period that Lun Lun and Yang Yang can remain in Atlanta. He aimed for $500,000 and collected more than $400,000. In this crummy economy, that’s remarkable.

Because he’s surrounded by scientists, who frown at naming animals — it’s unscientific, they sniff — the zoo boss tries maintain some detachment from the zoo’s residents. Kelly, who’s been known to say good morning to the elephants, usually fails.

Mei Lan’s departure, Kelly said Thursday, “is sort of like watching a child go off to college.”

And who hasn’t felt a pang looking at an empty space so recently full of young life?

If you want to say your own goodbye, Mei Lan’s on display through Wednesday.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.