New York has certainly seen its share of celebs, but few have been hailed on a scale like this. The appearance of Yong Yong, a 187-pound giant panda, has been accorded the kind of treatment usually reserved for a presidential visit or a U2 concert. Consider: Her six-month run at the Bronx Zoo, which started two weeks ago, was preceded by seven years of negotiations with the Peking Zoo. One of the concessions won by Yong Yong’s handlers was that she wouldn’t travel in cargo. Passengers shared seating space with crates containing the six-year-old and her traveling companion, Ling Ling, an 18-month-old, 119-pound male. Both animals have their food flown in from Georgia (150 pounds of bamboo twice a week) and are attended by an entourage of five (two American keepers, two Chinese keepers and an interpreter). And what biped star has ever been publicly introduced, as Yong Yong was, by Mayor Ed Koch banging on a gong?
Zoo officials are hoping that the first pandas in New York since 1951 will draw 2,000 people an hour this summer. Such numbers don’t faze Yong Yong, who feted a crowd of 400,000 at the Peking Zoo last May Day. In fact, she seems to be getting a bit jaded by all the attention. “Ling Ling is a lot more playful,” says James Doherty, the zoo’s general curator. “Yong Yong? Well, she spent two months in Los Angeles during the Olympics and two more in San Francisco. It’s like she’s done it all before.”