Marty Dearie is one of Bei Bei’s keepers. He saw the male cub born in August 2015 on the “panda cam” — which is trained on the zoo’s pandas around the clock. Bei Bei, who now weighs a healthy 250 pounds (114 kilos), lives with his parents, dad Tian Tian and mom Mei Xiang.
“Our job has been to get him prepared for the trip to China from the moment he was born,” Dearie told AFP. “We knew that was coming — it’s part of the loan agreement.”
China’s “panda diplomacy” has evolved over the years.
At one point in time, Beijing gave pandas to friendly nations, but now that the animals are considered “vulnerable” to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, China lends pandas to zoos around the world.
Once a panda reaches the age of four, he or she is repatriated to breed with other animals at sanctuaries in China.
Bei Bei’s siblings, brother Tai Shan and sister Bao Bao, have already been returned to China.
Tian Tian and Mei Xiang will remain at the National Zoo until at least December 2020, when a new deal would need to be negotiated.
Even though the conditions were always set in stone, Dearie is still heartbroken to see Bei Bei go.
“I’m a very emotional person, I can admit to that,” he said.
“I’m sure on the day of the move for Bei Bei, I’ll be in some tears.”