San Diego Zoo's giant panda, Bai Yun, celebrates birthday with cake, hay

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - The first giant panda to give birth to surviving cubs in the U.S. celebrated her 26th birthday in San Diego Thursday.

Bai Yun arrived in San Diego in 1996, a year before the zoo began its multi-year breeding program with Bai Yun and another panda, Shi Shi.

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The two pandas arrived as the species was on the verge of extinction and helped researchers learn a great deal about panda behavior, pregnancy, birth, and maternal care, according to the zoo.

Last year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature reclassified the giant panda as "vulnerable," instead of endangered.

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"Bai Yun has been an amazing asset to our panda conservation program over the past two decades,” Kathy Hawk, senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo, said. "Since she’s been at the San Diego Zoo, we’ve learned a great deal about her and her species through her—including mother-infant relationships and overall panda biology. And for that we celebrate her."

The mother of six celebrated her birthday with envelopes and boxes packed with cake, hay, and other snacks - before lying down for a well-earned nap.

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The San Diego Zoo's giant pandas are in San Diego on a research loan from the People's Republic of China as part of a long-term, panda conservancy program.

Scientists estimate there are about 2,000 giant pandas living in their native habitats, the majority of which are adults.

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