WASHINGTON – Bei Bei sat on a hammock nonchalantly, chewing on sugarcane. 

It’s one of his last snacks in the United States before he travels some 15 hours to China.

“He’s very laid back. Look at him,” says Timothy McGrath.

McGrath, 68, is one of the dozens of people gathered at the giant panda exhibit at Smithsonian’s National Zoo before Bei Bei, the cub born here four years ago, leaves for China as part of a research and breeding program.

McGrath has been coming with his wife from upstate New York every few months to visit pandas since they first arrived to the zoo in the 1970s.

Bei Bei is different, though. He’s special, he says.

“I’m devastated,” McGrath says. “I would have been here in a full-body cast to see him off.”

For McGrath, the cub is more than just a zoo animal. He and his wife have seen the panda program and enclosure grow in size and scope, and they’ve formed lifelong friendships with other visitors who come for the pandas. McGrath jokes that when friends show photos of their children and grandchildren, he tells his wife to pull out their panda photos.

“It’s like a magnet,” he says of Bei Bei’s personality.

On Tuesday, the panda is flying to a new home to China, an agreement the zoo and Chinese officials have had since the cub was born, but on his final days in the park, zoo goers and staff have gotten a last chance to see him off.

“It’s all about the fact that we’re sending a bear halfway around the world,” says Brandie Smith, the deputy director of the zoo. “But if you ask me last week, I was looking at baby pictures.”

“He’s our little boy. We’ve been with him every second since he was born. It’s sad,” she says.

Bei Bei, a panda born at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. four years ago, will travel to China on Tuesday as part of a breeding and research program.

How to send a panda to China

Tuesday will be solely about Bei Bei, Smith says. Every detail is rehearsed and planned as Bei Bei travels from the National Zoo in Northwest Washington to Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia then Chengdu, China. He’ll fly nonstop via FedEx on a Boeing 777 Freighter aircraft, aptly named the FedEx Panda Express.

It’s not the first time zoo officials and FedEx have sent off a young panda. His two siblings have also made the long trek overseas.

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