The National Zoo panda cub Xiao Qi Ji is now a year old, weighs 61 pounds, and has a knack for climbing tall trees without falling.

Giant pandas Mei Xiang (left) and Xiao Qi Ji (right) enjoy a fruitsicle cake in honor of Xiao Qi Ji's first birthday.
Credit: Smithsonian National Zoo

What do you serve to a giant panda cub on his first birthday? At the Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C., panda cub Xiao Qi Ji (SHIAU-chi-ji) received a delightful frozen fruitsicle cake his keepers made for his big day.

The base was made of frozen diluted grape juice and decorated with sweet potato, apple, carrot, pear, banana, bamboo, and sugar cane. Atop that was a giant number 1.

Mom Mei Xiang (may-SHONG) was given her own cake with a heart on top, and the duo enjoyed both on August 21, a hot summer Saturday. Even father Tian Tian (tYEN-tYEN) was given a fruitsicle cake, even though he hasn't done any of the child-rearing and celebrated in his own enclosure.

"It's one of those big milestones that we feel really proud about, that he's made it that far," National Zoo panda keeper Marty Dearie tells our friends at PEOPLE.

While enjoying his frozen treats, the giant panda cub imitated mom, says the keeper. "He sits so much like his mother, and it's cute to see a tiny little animal doing that."

The birthday boy also received new toys for his first birthday and has been curiously playing with them all week. Nicknamed Qi Ji, the cub has been a special gift to the keepers and the public, who followed him on the Panda Cam while the zoo was shut down during the pandemic.

Aug. 21, 2021 | Giant panda Xiao Qi Ji holds a heart made of frozen diluted apple juice.
Credit: Smithsonian National Zoo

"I'm not a religious person, but his name means 'little miracle,' and I truly think it captures the feel of it," Dearie says. "When I think back to last year when he was born (August 21, 2020), we still were in the heat of the pandemic."

"To have this cub born was amazing. We get to have this nice, really cool thing happen, and we get to be a part of it," he adds. "But we also realized, paying attention to the traffic on the webcams and the comments, what an impact he had on anybody who paid attention. Just that little bit of joy in that really, really awful time. He was the shining light in the middle of nothing but bad."

"I still think he's offering that," the keeper says of Qi Ji's effect on others.

The zoo is open now but requires entry passes and masks in indoor spaces. "We're still not getting back to normal. It feels like it's getting worse every day again. You come in, and he's acting like a fool, and it makes you smile," Dearie says.

Because the zoo was closed to the public for much of the past year, zookeepers spent more alone time with the little cub, even allowing the cub to climb into their laps. But now, at 61 pounds, with large claws and sharp nails, the cub is spending most of his time exploring on his own.

"He's very intelligent. He really thinks things through in a way that the two other cubs that I've worked with didn't. He is very thoughtful. You can really see the wheels turning in his head about what he wants to do and how he wants to get from Point A to Point B," Dearie says.

Giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji (foreground) and Mei Xiang (background) enjoy a panda-friendly fruitsicle cake in honor of Xiao Qi Ji's first birthday.
Credit: Smithsonian National Zoo

While his siblings often climbed trees and fell out of them, Qi Ji has managed not to fall. He starts his day eating bamboo leaves and climbing 20 feet into a tree. On hot, humid afternoons, Qi Ji swaps bamboo for popsicles. He has just learned the joys of playing in hose water.

"If we're hosing along the back, he'll come and get in it. He licks at the water and plays in it. It's really fun to watch," Dearie says.

At age one, the little panda still likes to wrestle with his mom. Sometimes she hugs him tight and rolls down the hill with him.

"They both initiate," Dearie says of the playful pair. "Sometimes he'll be asleep, and she's walking by, and she'll push him around a little bit. They'll bite each other. They'll swat at each other. They'll push each other around. They'll roll around. It's a whole body experience."

Qi Ji now knows to come to the keepers when they call his name, and he's learning other commands too. He'll stand on his hind legs on command, which gives keepers a chance to examine his underside. He's learning to stick his arm out for a blood draw, and he's mastered "target," where he puts his nose to a ball on command. The reward is diluted honey water from a squirt bottle, and it seems well worth his efforts.

Giant panda males don't play any role in raising cubs. Qi Ji doesn't seem to have much curiosity about Tian Tian, his dad, and the feeling seems mutual. "They've looked at each other through the howdy windows that are in between the yards, but they've not really shown an interest in one another, and that's pretty typical."

Within the next six months, Qi Ji will separate from mom. Because Mei Xiang is 23, she probably won't have any more cubs, so there's no rush.

"He's calmer than his siblings. He's the perfect baby for his older mother. He does what he's asked. He's not constantly pestering her. He's just really sweet and a really good cub," Dearie says.

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