WASHINGTON – The drivers and trucks - one holding 50 pounds of bamboo and other treats -- arrived at the National Zoo on Tuesday as Bao Bao the giant panda munched her last breakfast before she heads out on a long flight to China.
On the menu: bamboo.
Around midday, Bao Bao will enter a crate and board a FedEx plane for the roughly 16-plus-hour journey to her new home in China. Early in the morning, the 203-pound giant panda sat on her platform under a bare tree and crunched bamboo stalks. It was quiet expect for the chirping of a lone sparrow and the clicking of photographers' cameras.
Born at the National Zoo three and a half years ago, Bao Bao is leaving the only place she's ever known as home.
Zoo director Dennis Kelly called Tuesday a "really bittersweet day" for the facility. "While it represents a huge success, we've become so fond of Bao Bao," he said. "We're going to miss her so much."
The zoo is closed Tuesday until noon as staff members get handle the logistics of moving Bao Bao from the zoo to the cargo plane at Dulles International Airport.
Arriving along with the trucks was a crew wearing black jackets with the words "FedEx Panda Team" on the back. The passenger seemed to take it all in as she emerged in the outdoor area of her enclosure around 7:40 a.m.
Just after 10 a.m., a forklift - decorated with black panda ears and escorted by a procession of zoo keepers - emerged from the panda complex. The white crate holding Bao Bao was loaded into the truck shortly thereafter.
As a crowd of keepers and zoo workers waved goodbye, one worker from the zoo's guest services department zoo wept. Then they all hugged. And by 10:30, the giant panda was off.
Over the holiday weekend, about 60,000 people visited the zoo, officials said. Some came from as far away as Scotland just to say their goodbyes and give well wishes to Bao Bao. There were traffic jams throughout the Woodley Park neighborhood as visitors tried to get a last look at the panda.
Bao Bao enjoyed a few treats over the last few days, including a farewell ice cake, made with frozen apple juice, bamboo and biscuits, in the shape of a Chinese pagoda.
When Bao Bao's truck arrived at Dulles early Tuesday afternoon, about 15 people with special passes waited on the tarmac outside a FedEx plane that said Panda Express.
One 9-year-old, Jamie Levinson, had skipped school with her dad to come say goodbye. Her advice to Bao Bao, "It's going to be a fun and cool experience, and you're where you should be."
Bao Bao's nonstop flight to Chengdu, China, will involve a team of pilots, a veterinarian and a specialized panda keeper. Also aboard: 50 pounds of snacks and liquids. Her luggage includes bamboo, sweet potatoes, apples, water and sugar cane.
In China, she will go into quarantine at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Dujiangyan, Sichuan province.
Most giant pandas around the world are on loan from China, and cubs that are born abroad are sent to the Chinese breeding program before they turn 4 years old. The National Zoo has had pandas since the 1970s.
Bao Bao's older brother, Tai Shan, moved to China in 2010. The National Zoo still has three other giant pandas, including Bao Bao's 1-year-old brother, Bei Bei, and their mother Mei Xiang, 18, and father Tian Tian, 19.
This spring, the zoo said it plans to breed Mei Xiang, who they believe has at least one more chance to produce a cub.
Officials have said Bao Bao is special because she is only the second surviving cub born at the facility. Some keepers have dubbed her the "miracle" giant panda.
The panda, whose name means "precious" or "treasure" in Chinese, was born in August 2013. Mei Xiang gave birth to a second cub about 26 hours later, but that cub was stillborn.
Many of the keepers at the zoo were reflective Tuesday as they helped get Bao Bao ready for her journey.
Brandie Smith, the zoo's associate director for animal care sciences, said that after Tai Shan left, no panda cubs were born for several years.
"A lot of people had given up. So Bao Bao to me is the new beginning of the National Zoo's panda program. This is part of the journey we always expect her to take," she said. "A lot of people expected me to be sad right now, but I'm so happy for her and proud of what we accomplished. I feel nothing but joy right now."