No matter the distance or the weather, Jane Christensen was determined to see the giant pandas before they leave Washington.
The woman, a sexagenarian who traveled hundreds of kilometers from her residence in Michigan, said she was struck by the magical tenderness of the specimens since China gave them to the United States more than half a century ago.
"I've had 'panda fever' ever since," he acknowledged in the drizzle outside the Smithsonian National Zoo exhibit.
The zoo's three pandas will leave for China at the end of this year, at least temporarily ending decades of connection between the adorable species and the American capital.
The zoo started a weekly event called "Panda Palooza" - parodying a popular festival - that anticipates the departure of the specimens and brings together thousands of fans dressed in hats and clothing alluding to the particular bears.
The first specimens, cute balls of black and white fur, arrived from China in 1972 as a gift after the historic visit of then-US President Richard Nixon to the Asian giant.
At the Smithsonian Zoo, millions of dollars have been allocated to the study and adaptation of pandas, especially in relation to breeding and through the popular "Panda Cam", which broadcasts 24 hours a day and with which their health is monitored. and behavior.
"We've seen it on live camera every day up to this point," said Heidi Greco, who traveled with her family for hours in their car from Ohio State.
Her daughter Stormy, who is wearing a panda hat and a newly purchased panda umbrella, is "obsessed" with the animals, Greco says.
The family has seen them take a few laps in their separate outdoor enclosures, and have also enjoyed the indoor view where visitors can see them up close eating snacks and bamboo.
"When I heard that these pandas were leaving, and that the pandas at Zoo Atlanta were leaving, I realized that there would be no more pandas in North America... (except) one in Mexico that is very old, I became very, very upset" Greco said.
The Atlanta Zoo, in the southern state of Georgia, will also send its pandas to China at the end of 2024.
Pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived in Washington in 2000, and have given birth to four bear cubs. Xiao Qi Ji (“Little Miracle” in Spanish) was born in 2020 and will leave for China in December.
During Xi Jinping's state visit in 2015, the Chinese and American first ladies held an official ceremony to present Bei Bei, another baby panda.
Eight years later, the panda exhibit is about to close.
The Smithsonian pays $500,000 annually to its Chinese conservation partner, the zoo said.