Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Happy 20th birthday, Hua Mei
(recalling Panda Cam mania)

Infant Hua Mei, left, and Bai Yun appear in this panda cam screen shot from November 24, 1999.

Break out the frozen-juice cake!! Today is the 20th birthday of Hua Mei (华美), a female giant panda. The daughter of mother Bai Yun (1991-present) and father Shi Shi (c. 1970s-2008), Hua Mei was born at the San Diego Zoo on August 21, 1999, and became the first giant panda cub to survive to adulthood in the United States.

In 1999, during the early years of the world wide web, connections were slow and multimedia technology was primitive. But we did have Panda Cam, and it was one of the coolest things on Earth! The Panda Cam window was about 3 inches wide. It was a low-resolution, black-and-white video image. It was prone to lagging. But it was addictive! Here's a short sample clip:

Fellow copy editor Mike McCombs and I would watch the 24/7 Panda Cam endlessly on our PCs in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal sports department. It's a wonder we managed to finish the section on some nights, as we watched Bai Yun's daughter Hua Mei grow from a little peanut to a toddler. It was just like The Truman Show, but without Laura Linney pitching products.

Hua Mei has lived in China since 2004 and has given birth to at least 10 cubs over the years. Giant pandas can live to the age of 30 to 35 in captivity, so she should have many birthdays remaining.

This past spring, 27-year-old Bai Yun and her youngest cub, Xiao Liwu, left the San Diego Zoo to return to China, per the terms of the zoo's conservation loan agreement. To the best of my knowledge, only three American zoos still have giant pandas — Zoo Atlanta, the Memphis Zoo and the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. You can see the National Zoo's Panda Cam here. It's a lot snazzier than the one we were watching 20 years ago.

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