February 19, 2010 04:46 PM

They took days off from work and sat through snowstorms to say goodbye to Tai Shan, the panda they claimed as their spirit animal, their own. They took hundreds of pictures, showed off their Tai Shan tattoos, and watched his every blink, nom and shuffle, choking back tears at the thought of never being able to stand this close to him again. They are the panda fans, and they don’t know what they’ll do after the National Zoo’s 4-and-a-half-year-old panda takes off for his new home in China on Thursday.

Daniel Reidel, a 27-year-old D.C.-area student, has been going to the zoo every day since they announced the date of Tai Shan’s departure, “just to grasp every last minute I can.” Reidel has followed Tai Shan since the bear was born in 2005, visiting the zoo each weekend to check in. “Come today, when I have to leave at 4:30, that’s going to be by far the hardest thing I’m going to do this year,” Reidel tells PEOPLEPets.com. “This is up there on the tears scale. He’s the perfect bear.”

Reidel isn’t the only one crying; zoo staff say that many visitors have been shedding tears the past few weeks. “It’s like the Beatles,” says Dr. Erika Bauer, the zoo’s curator of pandas. Adds Tai Shan’s handler Nicole Meese, “He definitely has rock star status around here and apparently will have that in China as well. They’re already excited about it.”

China donated pandas Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing to the U.S. in the 1970s, and ever since, Washington, D.C. has been a panda-fied town. There are panda statues across the city, and the metro card features a picture of the zoo’s pandas. For decades, local residents remained on panda watch, waiting for a panda cub to be born at the National Zoo to live into maturity. Tai Shan was the first.

“It was kind of like Red Sox fans who were waiting for the World Series: This is what we were waiting for,” says zoo spokesperson Karin Korpowski-Gallo. “When there was finally a cub and it lived each day, and every day it got stronger, that started a strong bond with a lot of people.”

They were drawn in by his boundless energy, his confidence, his charismatic eyes. Several panda fan clubs sprung out of this enthusiasm, including a 2,719-member Flickr group called Pandas Unlimited, started by Frances Nguyen, a web designer and amateur photographer. Nguyen, 36, met her husband, Foo Cheung, at the zoo, and the two were married in September last year. “Tai has left behind a lot of gifts,” Nguyen tells PEOPLEPets.com. “It’s going to be empty when he’s gone, but I’m trying to think positive for his future.”

Pandas Unlimited raises funds for the zoo’s pandas, donating thousands of dollars to improve the panda house. The group is also trying to raise $50,000 to adopt Tai Shan. So far, their total take is more than $15,000.

Nguyen, for her part, is looking forward to planning a trip to China. She can’t think about going back to the zoo: “It’ll just be too hard to come back right away.”

See more panda coverage on PEOPLEPets.com:

Surprise! Panda Cub’s First Two Teeth Have Arrived!

Panda Lou Sheng Shows Off Her Twin Cubs

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