Politics & Government

Could pandas come to Washington state? China’s looking into it

Bei Bei, the National Zoo's newest panda and offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, is presented for members of the media at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Monday, Dec. 14. Officials in Washington state are working with the Chinese government in hopes of getting pandas here, too.
Bei Bei, the National Zoo's newest panda and offspring of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, is presented for members of the media at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Monday, Dec. 14. Officials in Washington state are working with the Chinese government in hopes of getting pandas here, too. Associated Press

China is exploring how it could loan pandas to Washington state, after several of Washington’s legislators and members of Congress recently wrote letters requesting a pair of the endangered animals.

Backers of the movement to bring pandas to Washington announced Monday that their letters have received an encouraging response from Chinese President Xi Jinping: He’s having his people look into it.

“On your request for panda cooperation between our two sides, I have instructed competent departments in China to carry out relevant studies,” Xi wrote Nov. 13, according a translation of his letter distributed Monday at a press conference in Seattle.

“The State Forestry Administration of China is ready to engage in preliminary technical exchanges with Washington State on joint panda research, with a view to creating conditions for future cooperation,” Xi’s letter continued.

Xi visited the Puget Sound region, including Tacoma's Lincoln High School, in September.

About one-third of the Washington’s Legislature and several members of the state’s congressional delegation recently wrote Chinese officials asking them to consider the possibility of sending pandas to Washington state.

We’re still a long way away from a decision, or little cute pandas like they have in D.C. … But … this is continuing down the path toward yes.

State Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup

Ron Chow, a Lakewood businessman who has been working on the issue, said Xi’s response was the best Washington’s panda proponents could have hoped for.

“We still have a long, long road ahead of us,” Chow said. “But at least he didn’t tell us to go take a hike, which is a good thing.”

Chow said pandas are “a Chinese treasure” as well as a symbol of friendship, and would strengthen the bond between Washington state and China.

“Future generations will definitely enjoy it, if and when this becomes reality,” Chow said.

Even if things go perfectly, however, the earliest Washington could expect to receive a pair of pandas would be about two years from now, Chow said.

While there are no pandas at zoos in the Pacific Northwest, the animals currently are on display at zoos in Washington, D.C., Memphis, Atlanta and San Diego.

Future generations will definitely enjoy it, if and when this becomes reality.

Ron Chow, Lakewood businessman working to bring pandas to Washington state

Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, called Xi’s letter “a very positive move toward the prospect of ultimately getting pandas.”

“We’re still a long way away from a decision, or little cute pandas like they have in D.C.,” Dammeier said. “But at any place along the path, people can say no. This is continuing down the path toward yes.”

As part of their study, Chinese officials will need to determine whether their dwindling panda population is large enough for China to send two of the animals to Washington, Chow said.

Chinese forestry officials also plan to visit Washington state to educate local officials on what is required to care for pandas and house them properly, Chow said.

A spokeswoman for the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle said that while officials there would love to have pandas one day, it’s an expensive proposition, partly because zoos must pay the Chinese government an annual fee to display the animals.

“In addition to paying $1 million a year for 10 years to the Chinese government, there would be the cost of building or retrofitting a suitable exhibit for them, plus the cost of their special diet,” zoo spokeswoman Alissa Wolken wrote in an email Monday.

It would be a real coup to get a pair of pandas here, and hopefully grow a panda family.

State Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia

Chow said he and other members of the Washington State Panda Foundation will work to cover those costs through fundraising and private donations. Joining Chow at Monday’s press conference were former state Attorney General Rob McKenna and former Washington Gov. John Spellman, both of whom said they thought private donations would be able to eliminate some — if not all — of the cost concerns for local zoos.

A spokeswoman for Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma said the zoo hasn’t included giant pandas in its future exhibition plans, and hasn’t discussed the matter with the Washington State Panda Foundation.

State Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, said “it would be a real coup for us to get a pair of pandas here, and hopefully grow a panda family.”

Hunt, who was one of several state officials who went on a trade mission to China earlier this year, said the “very rare” pandas would help cement the growing trade partnership between China and Washington state.

“If they want to help us with pandas, we’d like to help them with some good wine and some good apples and some good salmon, and more Boeing airplanes,” Hunt said Monday.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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