Posted Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010, at 1:39 PM
When Tai Shan, the Washington-born panda formerly known to the Internet as " Butterstick ," was repatriated to China this past winter, the National Zoo called his departure " bittersweet " and said that he was a "true ambassador for the giant panda species." According to a report from the Xinhua News Agency, his new keepers at the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Pandas, in Sichuan, were not as impressed by him as a representative of his kind:
When Tai Shan arrived in early February from the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC, he weighed only 87 kg - a weight considered too light for a four-and-a-half-year-old panda. And he used to have a big belly, which meant he lacked exercise.
So before Tai Shan begins his career as a breeding panda, the staff in the section reserved for foreign-born pandas has been trying to bulk him up and rectify his lazy Western habits. According to Xinhua, his keeper, Huang Shan, will only feed him apple pieces if he stands up to get them.
"It's a good exercise because it makes his hind legs stronger," Huang said. "Pandas need strong legs to be able to mate."
Under the food-and-exercise regimen, Tai Shan has
gained more than 20 kg and now eats at least 50 kg of bamboo, 2 kg of carrots and 2 kg of panda cakes - made with corn, eggs and honey - a day.
Huang said that after Tai Shan arrived, the center not only fed him more food, but helped him get into shape.
"We used to spread the food around so Tai Shan was forced to walk around the big area to find the food," Huang said.
"Now, he is much stronger and has a better body shape. And his hair is more lustrous."
The staff has also trained Tai Shan to respond to commands in Chinese. When he first arrived, he only understood English and signals from a whistle.
In another year or so, when Tai Shan is fully mature and in suitable physical condition, the center will began auditioning females as prospective mates for him, bringing them one at a time into his 21,000-square-foot enclosure, which is the "largest in the center."
"If Tai Shan accepts her, he will indicate this by growling in a special way," Huang said.