WASHINGTON – More than 100 reporters,photographers and videographers shared the same fear: that panda cub Tai Shan would be asleep at his media debut Tuesday.
Reporter Michael Zitz Beckham and photographer Suzanne Carr were up at 3 a.m. to make it to the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo for the 7 a.m. press conference and cub viewing. The two work for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg,Va.,about an hour south of the capital.
“We said we were going to bring a BB gun and shoot him in the butt if he wasn't awake,” Beckham joked. “I only got 30 minutes of sleep last night.”
The press preview followed viewing days for zoo donors. The public will be allowed to view the cub next week. The 13,000 tickets for December viewings were snapped up within two hours of their release.
As mom Mei Xiang had breakfast in her outdoor enclosure,zookeeper Laurie Perry carried Tai Shan into the indoor exhibit and past the window,crowded with photographers vying for an unobstructed view.
Once he was on his own,the ominous disclaimer from the zoo flashed through everyone's mind: “This is a live animal exhibit – there is no guarantee that the cub will be awake,active or visible.” Luckily for news organizations around the world,the 4 ½-month-old was awake and ready to explore,posing for pictures like a pro.
A voice from the crowd of photographers called out,“It's a lot tougher than photographing the president. He has a mind of his own.”
The cub turned to face the window and climbed a rocky structure,rambling and struggling over low boulders,his impossibly short legs propelling him.
As he moved to the back of the artificial rock pile,a false step sent him tumbling to the floor,and a collective “oh!” came from his audience of journalists,who,like most people here,have been greatly anticipating seeing the newest member of the panda family.
“I've been here since the beginning,” said Danielle Karson,a reporter for WAMU 88.5 FM. Karson was there when Tai Shan's parents,Tian Tian,and Mei Xiang,arrived from China.
“This is nothing,” she said,telling of the hundreds of cameras and reporters on that day five years ago. “The Washington area has a love affair with the panda family. The last several years have been so unsuccessful,everyone is just tickled pink that this baby is thriving.”
As the zoo's photographer for the past 26 years,Jessie Cohen has witnessed those disappointments. She photographed the first set of pandas,Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing,documenting five unsuccessful pregnancies.
“I've waited a long time to cover a successful birth,” Cohen said. She and a videographer have been at eight of the cub's medical exams,working under restrictive conditions,including limited time and bad lighting. “We have to do a lot in a short amount of time and then get out of the way.”
Even Channel One Russia,a Russian television station,was at the only zoo event it has attended other than the annual post-Halloween elephant pumpkin stomp,said Sarah Taylor,a zoo spokeswoman.
“Everyone likes at the end of a [news] bulletin something special,” said Alexander V. Panov,the station's Washington bureau chief. “Because the panda is worldwide very popular.”
Taylor said she knew the panda cub would draw a lot of media attention.
“The first thing I was told was,‘You have no idea how the media gets at panda breeding season,'” she said of her first days working at the zoo. “All day Friday and Monday,I couldn't get away from my computer” because so many people were e-mailing and calling about the press preview.