SAN DIEGO -- It is always an emotional affair when a superstar makes a farewell tour before departing the stage.
Sinatra. Chevalier. Kareem. Hua Mei.
The giant panda whose birth at the San Diego Zoo brought rejoicing to a panda-loving populace is going home to China.
Under the panda loan agreement between the United States and China that brought the male Shi Shi and female Bai Yun to San Diego in 1996, any progeny from their union is the property of China and must be returned to the creature's native land when the animal is 3. Hua Mei (pronounced "wah-may") turns 3 on Aug. 21.
Although no date has been set, San Diego zookeepers are preparing the public for Hua Mei's imminent departure. Freeway billboards, television commercials and multiple signs at the zoo remind visitors that her long run is coming to an end.
As a kind of zoological therapy, patrons can videotape farewell messages to Hua Mei, the only surviving panda ever born at a zoo in the United States. "People are very emotional," said Ellie Rosenbaum, the zoo's senior panda narrator. "They watched her birth on the Internet. They've watched her grow up on the panda cam. They feel like she's ours."
Of the 4,000 animals at the San Diego Zoo, there is little doubt that Hua Mei is the most popular with its 3 million annual visitors.
Bai Yun ("bi-yoon") and Shi Shi ("shee-shee") have their own constituencies, but Hua Mei surpasses them, zoo officials say. More visitors see the pandas than any other animal.
Even by panda standards, Hua Mei has a star's knack for pleasing the public. She bounds into her enclosure each morning and scampers around to such acclaim that visitors' cameras click like a herd of crickets.
"She's surprised us with the intensity of her vigor," said Don Lindburg, the zoo's giant panda team leader.