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Exhibit Opens : Pandas Win Hearts of Zoo Crowd

Times Staff Writer

Yes, there was Pandamania Monday at the Pandaminium.

The first-ever giant panda exhibit at the San Diego Zoo opened Monday to large, but not overwhelming, crowds that marveled at the chance to view the highly endangered animals who have become the symbol worldwide of wildlife preservation efforts.

The 200-day visit of two giant pandas began early Monday when a select group of 800 San Diego politicians, zoo donors and civic leaders crowded into the five-tiered pavilion that overlooks the panda enclosure, both specially built for the visit at a cost of $500,000.

After the 8 a.m. dedication ceremonies for the animals on loan from the Fuzhou Zoo in China--the only country with pandas in the wild--a steady stream of visitors filed past, catching the pandas mostly slumbering in their bamboo-laden enclosure or occasionally performing a variety of tricks with their keepers.

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“They’re a symbol for all the animals who are near extinction,” said Rosie Brown, who with her husband Ted drove from Newport Beach to see the pandas, of which fewer than 700 survive today in natural preserves in China. “I think this exhibit stands for trying to protect all animals in the world.”

First Was in Late 1930s

Gwen Stoughton of Rancho Santa Fe remembered as a child going to Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo in the late 1930s to see Su-Lin, the first giant panda ever to be exhibited in an American zoo.

“Absolutely they were seen as just as cute then as they are today,” Stoughton said. “As kids we all had stuffed pandas then, just as now kids have stuffed koalas.”

Nine-year-old Michael Quon was happy that he saw both the female Base and the male Yuan Yuan walking around in their separate enclosures, chewing bamboo and crunching apples. “I saw them at the Los Angeles Zoo but they were sleeping.” Michael’s uncle Rollie led the Lucky Lion Dragon Dancers of San Diego, who performed a good-luck routine before the pandas made their first appearance.

Ming Wu and his wife, Tunsheng Yang, have seen pandas several times at zoos in their native China. But the UC San Diego graduate students nevertheless came early Monday to see the animals in a San Diego setting.

“Sure, they are very cute, cuter than many people perhaps,” Wu said with a laugh. “But I think this is a very great day in strengthening friendship between China and the United States, and that friendship is very important.”

Although the zoo was more crowded Monday than normal for a summer weekday--a 25% increase over the same day last year--there was seldom a wait for visitors to enter the panda viewing area. Zoo officials had braced for a larger crush, and speculated late Monday that perhaps publicity about opening-day crowds and parking problems might have persuaded some would-be visitors to wait for another day.

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In Middle of Zoo

Also, the pandas are housed in the middle of the sprawling zoo, away from always-crowded exhibits near the zoo entrance. As a result, officials believe that the flow past the pandas may be more consistent and less subject to periodic crushes than perhaps earlier thought.

Nevertheless, the zoo is prepared for big crowds. The waiting area for the pandas, modeled after those used for popular attractions at Disneyland, contains educational posters about pandas and closed-circuit television monitors into the enclosures to make wait times pass more quickly. The zoo will open at 8 a.m. beginning today through Labor Day.

The zoo also has a well-stocked, albeit tiny, panda gift shop that was crowded throughout Monday, ringing up $25,000 in gross sales on the first day alone. That total outperformed the main zoo gift shop. Panda specialty items range from a 15-cent panda photo set to a $480 gold panda necklace. A visitor could spend more than $4,000 if every panda item in the shop were purchased.

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The two Chinese keepers that accompanied the animals to San Diego periodically demonstrated on Monday the unusual tricks of the two Fuzhou Zoo pandas. The animals, especially Basi, perform a variety of so-called “exercise routines” that include walking on their hind legs, sitting in a chair, pushing a scooter, lifting a barbell and waving greetings to viewers.

Dr. Edgar Liong, a San Diego Zoo consultant from Hong Kong who helped in negotiations for the loan, explained Monday that few zoos in China have performing pandas, both because of risks involved in teaching pandas from the wild and because of differing philosophies about tricks.

“But the Fuzhou Zoo does not do it for reasons of training for a circus, but to encourage movements that the pandas can do in the wild,” Liong said, adding that the pandas’ familiarity with their trainers allows them to be approached for blood pressure, heartbeat and other measurements to improve breeding possibilities without having to be sedated. While the San Diego Zoo does not hold to a similar animal demonstration philosophy, its officials believe the species’ dire plight for survival can justify such training in this case.

Would Like Blood Samples

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Werner P. Heuschele, the zoo’s director of research, said Monday that his scientists hope to obtain permission from the Chinese to take blood samples from the pandas.

“Ollie Ryder (zoo geneticist) wants to confirm the genetic lines of the panda,” said Heuschele, who heads the zoo’s world-renowned Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species. Heuschele said that Ryder wants to look for genetic markers in pandas that can help determine parentage in the wild.

For example, if a female has access to more than one male in the wild, a genetic marker could show which male impregnated the female and thus help researchers avoid subsequent in-breeding with pandas captured and mated in captivity. Ryder has done similar work on the California Condor, another highly threatened animal.

Ryder also recently authored a paper showing that giant pandas may be more closely related to bears than previously thought, based on genetic studies of chromosomes and protein molecules. The species is classified in its own mammalian family, between bears and raccoons, based on morphological characteristics such as bone and other anatomical characteristics.

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“The implication of the findings generated by the molecular and chromosomal studies for zoological classification of pandas is emphatically that the giant panda is a bear,” Ryder said, “and that a grouping of the giant and lesser pandas in (its own) family Ailuridae is not supported.”


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