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Pandas Going Home After Visits by 2 Million People

Times Staff Writer

Their stay at the San Diego Zoo wasn’t bolstered by any big-bucks hospitality tents, 88-piano halftime extravaganzas, or game, pregame and post-game network TV shows.

Yet during their 200-day visit, giant pandas Basi and Yuan Yuan were the prime attraction for about 2 million visitors. They are credited with boosting attendance at the zoo an estimated 35%, proving that two rare, furry critters, whose most strenuous activity is eating a branch of bamboo, can outdraw 22 sweating, grunting, groaning Super Bowl gladiators.

Monday will be the last full day Basi and Yuan Yuan will be on display at the zoo. They may be on view briefly Tuesday morning but are expected to spend most of the day resting for their Feb. 10 flight to China. They will be accompanied on their trip home to Fuzhou by the keepers who have been with them during their stay and Chen Yu Cun, director of the Fuzhou Zoo.

Tuesday’s steady rain failed to deter thousands who came to the zoo for a last look at the pandas. What they saw was Basi, the female, who spent much of the time napping in the specially designed panda enclosure. Yuan Yuan, the narrator for the exhibit explained, was “in his bedroom because he doesn’t like the rain.”

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Nothing Like Them

“Everybody has fallen in love with the pandas,” zoo spokesman Jeff Jouett said. “It’s going to be hard to come up with anything that will equal the pandas. There has been nothing in the zoo’s history back to 1916 that had been as phenomenal as the response of people to these pandas.”

In March, the zoo plans to open a sprawling, three-acre exhibit known as Tiger River. It is being built at a cost of $6 million and will feature 10 different exhibits in a tropical rain forest setting. But even Tiger River isn’t expected to be as popular as the pandas.

“That will be very exciting,” Jouett said, “but I don’t think it’s going to live up to the instant success of the pandas.

“We can’t think of another animal that 300 people at a time would watch while another 300 waited in line to see them.”

During the pandas’ stay, narrators made an appeal for help in preserving pandas a regular part of their talks to visitors. Giant pandas are one of the rarest and most endangered creatures, with only a few hundred left in the wild. Their dependence on a diet of bamboo, the encroachment of humans on their territory, and their low reproductive rate has placed them on the edge of extinction.

In China, an attempt will be made to breed Basi; Yuan Yuan will be on exhibit at the Fuzhou zoo.

The return of pandas to San Diego “is not out of the question” considering the close ties between the San Diego Zoo and Chinese officials, Jouett said.

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“Hopefully in a couple of years, the topic of the pandas (returning to San Diego) will come up again,” he said.

In the meantime, zoo visitors will have to make do with the millions of panda mementos and souvenirs that were sold during Basi’s and Yuan Yuan’s stay. A panda gift shop near the exhibit has sold everything from panda posters to panda long underwear. More than a million panda T-shirts were sold, Jouett said.

‘Buy Buy Sale’

Now the shop is staging a “Panda Buy Buy Sale.” “We can’t keep things in stock,” said cashier Lupe Hines. “It’s just a madhouse.” Stuffed giant pandas costing $205 and $185 sold out over the weekend, she said.

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Among the shoppers Tuesday afternoon were Greg Hanley and his girlfriend, Anne Marie Sullivan, spending their last day in San Diego before returning home to Boston.

“We couldn’t leave San Diego without seeing the pandas,” Hanley said.

Outside, Phyllis and Jim Smith of La Mesa, among the some 2,000 people who braved the rain to visit the zoo, were fascinated by Basi. "(Pandas) don’t seem real because we’ve been so much attuned to the panda doll,” Jim Smith said. “It’s just so strange to see something really live like that.”

Patrice Vint, a telephone company technician from San Diego, was taking pictures of the sleeping Basi. “This is my third trip and I just wanted to say goodby,” she said. “Don’t you think that pandas have something to do with your childhood? They are just so cuddly. I’d like to see them as a permanent exhibit.”

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Christopher House, 10, who came to the zoo with his mother, said, “I think they are so delicate and quiet. I wish they could stay.”

Laura Deel, a narrator at the panda exhibit, was not surprised that the pandas drew a crowd Tuesday, even in the rain. She said about 60 people insisted on seeing the pandas in the midst of a recent howling wind storm.


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