US National Zoo bids farewell to pandas as government shutdown looms

(Reuters) – Washington’s National Zoo is honoring its three giant pandas with nine days of events ahead of their return to China but stormy weather and a looming U.S. government shutdown have put something of a damper on the festivities.

The “Panda Palooza” to honor their legacy as animal ambassadors and beloved Washington icons drew a reduced crowd on Saturday because of torrential rain from Tropical Storm Ophelia, according to local news reports.

The weather forced the zoo to cancel some outdoor events over the weekend, but it did not deter some heartier visitors from around the United States from flocking to the panda enclosure for one last glimpse at the threesome. Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cub Xiao Qi Ji are scheduled to be returned in early December.

The coming week will feature panda-themed film screenings, concerts, lectures, yoga, arts and craft activities, and “tasty celebratory treats” provided by the Chinese Embassy in Washington, according to the zoo’s website.

The festivities could end a day sooner than planned, however, if Congress fails to provide funding for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 due to an ongoing dispute between far-right Republicans and other lawmakers.

The zoo, operated by the Smithsonian Institute, receives federal funding, and would be forced to close to the public during a government shutdown, according to its website. The shutdown would not disrupt animal care, but the zoo’s popular live “Panda Cam” would go dark.

Mei Xiang, 25, and Tian Tian, 26, came to the zoo in 2000 under a cooperative research and breeding agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association. The pandas were initially meant to stay 10 years, but the agreement has been renewed three times since 2010.

The zoo’s giant panda program began in 1972, when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai donated two pandas to the United States soon after President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China that year.

The zoo did not say whether it has any immediate plans to acquire more giant pandas, but said on its website that it “hopes to continue this work in the future.”

(Reporting by Julia Harte; Editing by Bill Berkrot)