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Washington says goodbye to beloved giant panda Bei Bei
Washington bid one of its favorite furry friends adieu Tuesday as giant panda Bei Bei officially left the country on his journey to China.
All panda cubs born at the Smithsonian National Zoo must go to China when they are 4 years old, and Bei Bei marked his fourth birthday in August. The rule is part of the zoo's agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association.
Bei Bei departed from the zoo at approximately 9:30 a.m. for Dulles International Airport, where he boarded a dedicated FedEx plane bound for Chengdu, China, the zoo said in a statement.
The plane was dubbed the "FedEx Panda Express," customized for Bei Bei's trip with a special photo:
Bei Bei received his final "American breakfast" of bamboo and leafeater biscuits Tuesday morning, according to the zoo's statement. He spent the morning outside in his habitat before zoo employees put him in a crate to be transported, which he had already trained with in preparation for the journey.
"Today is bittersweet," Steve Monfort, the director of the zoo, said. "We've cared for Bei Bei, and along with millions, watched him grow into a true ambassador for his species. We are grateful to everyone who joined us for his farewell celebration. I am immensely proud of our team who have prepared Bei Bei for the next chapter of his life as he enters the breeding program in China. We look forward to continuing our 47-year giant panda conservation program and collaboration with Chinese colleagues to study, care for and help save the giant panda and its native habitat."
Laurie Thompson, assistant curator of giant pandas who has cared for Bei Bei since birth, will travel to China with the panda alongside Don Neiffer, chief veterinarian at the zoo.
"They will continuously monitor Bei Bei during the trip and are traveling with a supply of his favorite treats, including 66 pounds of bamboo, 2 pounds of apples and pears, two bags of leafeater biscuits, 2 pounds of cooked sweet potatoes and water," the zoo's statement said.
Bei Bei fans can also track his trip online.
Bei Bei's new keepers will meet the giant panda when he arrives in China, where he will be quarantined for approximately 30 days. He will enter the giant panda breeding program between six and seven years old.
Bei Bei was born Aug. 22, 2015, at the National Zoo to parents Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. His name translates to "precious" or "treasure," according to the zoo.
He will be the last cub the zoo has for "a long time," Brandie Smith, the zoo's deputy director said, The Washington Post reported.
"It's sad because it's Bei Bei's departure, but it's also sad because it's the end of an era for the panda program at the national zoo," Smith said.
"We will have cubs in the future," she added. "But not [with] this little family of pandas. It will be the next generation."