WASHINGTON — The National Zoo's panda cub, Bao Bao, won't be this cute forever. And when she's 4 years old, she'll be handed a one-way ticket to China. So we need to savor every moment we can get with our special furball, born to Mei Xiang and Tian Tian on Aug. 23 at the National Zoo. With the reopening of the panda house, Bao Bao groupies can start watching — in person instead of via Panda Cam! — for the developmental milestones she'll hit in the coming months. "Between now and her first birthday, there's just going to be an explosion of behaviors," says giant-panda keeper Nicole MacCorkle. How many will you spot?
• Bao Bao is "just really building the skills that she's going to use," MacCorkle says. She's not that interested in toys yet, and she's still getting to know her keepers and respond to her name, with the aid of a sweet incentive. Much like dogs, pandas "are very food-motivated," MacCorkle says. "When she starts to orient toward us, we call her name and say 'good girl' and she can have a little taste of apple juice."
• Bao Bao Starts Acting Cute: China's wild giant pandas are accustomed to snowy weather, MacCorkle says. She hopes the forecast cooperates in giving Bao Bao a taste of her motherland. Not much is cuter than an adult panda frolicking in the snow, she says. "But seeing a cub? That is an experience that definitely all Washingtonians should make time for."
• Bao Bao's First Tree Climb: Much like a parent would baby-proof a home, zookeepers will cub-proof Bao Bao and Mei Xiang's outdoor enclosure before Bao Bao gets her paws on the trees. Those with branches that overhang dad Tian Tian's yard are a no-no; others are just too high for Bao Bao to safely scale at her age -- stumps are more her speed right now. Zookeepers will also secure the fence lines and cushion some of the rocky areas with hay.
• Bao Bao Meets Dad: A panda family is sweet to imagine, but in reality, Tian Tian is an absentee father. (And maybe a dangerous one: "The potential exists that the cub could get killed" if she were housed in the same yard, MacCorkle says.) Unlike pandas in the wild, Bao Bao will get a chance to look at, smell and hear Tian Tian through a mesh window. Zookeepers look forward to this moment because they've never seen a female cub meet her father. "Who knows who's gonna vocalize first? Some lucky visitor might get to see that," MacCorkle says.
• Bao Bao's First Grown-Up Foods: Around her 6-month birthday, Bao Bao starts eating bamboo, just like Mom and Dad. She also gets her first fruitsicle, a frozen apple juice and fruit concoction. "We'll do a little mini one," MacCorkle says. "Mei is not very sharing when it comes to those." One treat Bao Bao won't taste until she's a year old is honey, as there's a tiny risk it could give her botulism.
• Bao Bao's First Bamboo Shoots: Visitors who really want to see the cub go nuts should visit when bamboo starts to shoot in late spring and early summer. The shoots, new growth that's softer and more nutritious than mature bamboo, are easily a panda's top treat pick, more coveted than honey or fruitsicles. "They just go crazy for them," MacCorkle says.
AUG. 23: Bao Bao's First Birthday: "It will be a big event that the public will be involved in," MacCorkle promises. For Bao Bao's birthday dinner, "I'm sure our Department of Nutrition will construct something fabulous and really extravagant-looking." If the several-layer ice "cakes" made for the National Zoo's previous cub, Tai Shan, are the benchmark, then Bao Bao's got one fancy fruitsicle to look forward to.
One thing visitors can't look forward to, however, is cuddling with the baby. Not even zoo staff are allowed to sneak a snuzzle with Bao Bao. "As tempting as that would be, that's not our role here. Our role is to be as true to what their wild counterparts are doing," MacCorkle says. If you did get to pet her, it might be a letdown. Panda hair isn't as soft as it looks, especially as a panda gets older; it feels kind of like scratchy sweater wool. MacCorkle compares Bao Bao's fur to "coarse dog fur, with a little bit of the oil to keep them insulated and let the water roll off of them so they can stay warm."