(WASHINGTON) -- Thousands of well-wishers are heading to the Smithsonian National Zoo and tuning in online to say "Bye-bye, Bao Bao." The beloved giant panda departs Washington, D.C., Tuesday for her new home in China.
"Everyone here at the zoo, the millions of people at the zoo and the millions more on the webcams around the world are all going to miss her tremendously," Associate Director of Animal Care Sciences Brandie Smith told ABC News.
In the days before her departure, the zoo has hosted a number of activities and educational livestreams, including a dumpling ceremony and an ice cake party.
Crowds of visitors lined up at the panda house, some waiting upwards of an hour, to wish the bear bon voyage.
“I have been watching this bear since she was born and it's actually the first adult animal I have seen from birth until adulthood,” visitor Heather Heckel told ABC News. “So I've just kind of loved her all of her life and I wanted to say goodbye.”
Bao Bao was born at the National Zoo Aug. 23, 2013, to China-born parents Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. Now older than 3, Bao Bao has to be sent to China as part of a cooperative breeding program between the zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA). As defined by terms of the program, all giant pandas born at the zoo must be sent to live in China before the age of 4.
“We like to send them back about this age because in a couple of years she’ll actually reach breeding age,” one of Bao Bao’s keepers, Marty Dearie, told ABC News. “It’s good to get them back a little early so they have time to settle into their new environment.”
Bao Bao begins her long trek to Chengdu, China, Tuesday morning, when she will travel from the zoo to Dulles International Airport in Virginia. From there, she will take a 19-hour direct flight on a personalized FedEx plane, accompanied by Dearie, a vet, and close to 60 pounds of bamboo and other treats.
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