When the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute reopened three weeks ago, animal lovers started lining up to get timed tickets to the zoo in hopes of getting free Panda Passes once inside. A Pande Pass is the ticket you need to meet giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji (nickname Qi Ji, pronounced Chee Gee). The public chose this name for the cub after his August birth because it translates to "Little Miracle," which is what the baby animal, and the joy he brings, felt like during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Keepers wondered how Xiao Qi Ji would react to meeting his fans face-to-face for the first time. The answer? Unbothered. Even though strangers now ogle him as he plays outside, the cub doesn't bat an eye.
"He takes his cues from his mother, and she didn't react to it, so I don't think he felt the need to react to it," Marty Dearie, one of the National Zoo's giant panda keepers, tells PEOPLE.
Qi Ji and his mom Mei Xiang enjoying prancing, playfighting, and tumbling in the dirt together, but they also spend time doing their own activities inside their outdoor enclosure. Mom spends 13 to 16 hours a day eating bamboo, and Qi Ji adores climbing trees, chewing on the branches as he goes, and taking naps 20 feet off the ground.
Keepers spend eight hours a day taking care of the zoo's three pandas. During the winter, the adults can eat more than 100 pounds of bamboo and generate up to 50 pounds of feces per day.
"That's a lot of work," Dearie says. "You don't want that in your house. And also they would destroy everything. They would just tear your house apart."
Currently at 45 pounds, but with the chance to grow to be 350 pounds, Qi Ji already has large incisors and impressive bear claws. He climbs trees at a fast clip. In China, bear cubs sometimes climb 100 feet to keep away from larger predators. At the zoo, Qi Ji's climbing allows mom to continue her eating binge without worry.
The 9-month-old cub is not strong enough to tear through bamboo yet, but he eats the leaves. He loves biscuits, apples, sweet potatoes, carrots, bananas, and pears. And he's still nursing once a day from mother Mei Xiang.
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The mother-son bond is delightful to watch. Qi Ji's very playful, and usually, Mei Xiang is game to wrestle with her cub, despite being an older mom of 22 years. When she's had enough, though, she'll push him away. It may take a few pushes, but her son eventually gets the message.
Both mother and cub will sleep more and eat less in summer. The heat in Washington, D.C., is taxing, especially under a panda coat. Luckily, the pandas have an air-conditioned indoor habitat. Qi Ji usually goes inside for a cooling break around noon each day.
Animal lovers can get a chance to see Qi Ji climb by getting a free timed entrance ticket to the National Zoo. Once inside, zoo guests can obtain a free Panda Pass - if there are passes available - allowing them to view the zoo's popular panda habitat. National Zoo members can register for both a timed entrance ticket to the zoo and a Panda Pass online ahead of their zoo visit.