Antwon Hines gave his final bear hug. At least in costume at the Smithsonian National Zoo.
Hines served for years as the zoo’s popular exhibit mascot, playing the iconic black and white bears and posing for numerous photos as the zoo’s designated greeter in a panda costume.
“People were so happy to see me walking in the park,” Hines told USA TODAY. “It was really special. I felt elevated to this place because of it.”
Hines left the panda suit and the zoo in 2022, ahead of the popular bears’ return to their native China. He left because he couldn’t bear stick around long enough for the mascot to become obsolete, he said.
Now that the giant pandas have left the National Zoo in Washington, Hines feels a chapter in his personal story has ended, too.
Hines, known as “Pantwon” when he wore the fur suit, greeted thousands of zoo visitors and gave them many, many hugs. Zoo staff could always count on Hines to be “full of energy and light and warmth,” said Lynn Mento, former director of Friends of the National Zoo, which employed Hines and other guest services workers.
“This costume brings back so many memories,” Hines, 26, said. “It will always be a part of me.”
Pantwon met most of Washington’s professional sports teams and spread holiday cheer on city streets since aboard the Smithsonian’s Zoo Lights mobile truck during some of the darkest days of the pandemic in 2020. Pandas qu he depicted in the costume had long had a ripple effect on Washington’s Woodley Park neighborhood, where local businesses catered to panda lovers.
“He brought the Christmas spirit to so many people and the panda spirit to so many people at the zoo,” Mento said.
For Hines, the “pandamonium” began in 2016, shortly after he began working at the zoo as an exhibit greeter. One day, he was gathered with co-workers when they learned that a panda costume needed someone to wear it. Other staff members groaned, but Hines said, “I’ll do it!”
“Those three words marked the beginning of a five-and-a-half-year journey,” Hines said. “It awakened this personality that I always had, a very social personality.”
Giant pandas leave the National Zoo
Giant pandas Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and their cub Xiao Qi Ji left the zoo for China on November 8.
They were originally scheduled to leave in early December, according to a press release. But the Smithsonian pushed back the deadline, in accordance with the institution’s three-year contract with China Wildlife Conservation.
Hines dressed up as Pantwon, the panda, as early as 2016, lining up visitors before they entered the zoo’s often-crowded indoor exhibit, the giant panda’s habitat, which is home to the three black bears and white.
Pantwon’s cheerful character, combined with the pandas’ naturally good-natured coloring and the ink markings on the eye mask, brought excitement and anticipation to children and adults alike. He was known for dancing to hip-hop, his big white belly bouncing to the beat as he was surrounded by cheerful patrons near the park’s visitor center.
After volunteering to wear the costume in 2016, Hines worked as Pantwon several days a month and was also regularly asked to make appearances outside the zoo, including at halftime sports shows and in local department stores.
The Woodley Park neighborhood mourns the departure of the panda
Many zoo visitors came to pick up the pandas, arriving decked out in panda hats, panda backpacks and other panda gear.
“Everyone who went to the zoo was trying to see the pandas, everyone wanted to see them,” Yael Krigman, owner of a bakery across the street from the zoo, told USA TODAY.
The bears were local celebrities in Washington’s Woodley Park neighborhood, their likenesses displayed along Connecticut Avenue in the form of two landmark panda statues on the sidewalk, artwork and signage in restaurant windows and stores. Krigman’s shop, Baked by Yael, also got in on the fun by selling panda cake pops.
“The pandas were our neighbors, they were part of the community,” said Krigman, 42. “You couldn’t help but feel good when you saw them, when you thought about them, they brought so much joy to so many people.”
Today, the neighborhood feels an indelible loss, she said.
About 80 percent of the neighborhood’s foot traffic comes from the zoo, according to Robert Meins, executive director of Woodley Park Main Street. He said he planned to calculate how much that number would decline over the coming year, in a post-panda era.
“Pandas are an integral part of the fabric of the neighborhood right now,” Meins said. “It’s not clear what the impact of their departure would be.”
“I was really upset”
Hines knew he couldn’t be “Panda Man” forever, as the Bears’ time in Washington was coming to an end.
Hines worked for the Friends of the National Zoo until 2021, often donning the panda costume. He left for a brief stint and returned to the zoo in 2022, before leaving again for good.
“I was really upset that the pandas were leaving,” he said. “I thought if they left, I probably wouldn’t have much of a reason to be there.”
He now works as an events coordinator for the federal government and private sector in Washington.
Although Hines left the bear costume behind, the bear costume never really left Hines.
Since he last wore the costume, Hines has thought a lot about what the character meant to people. Pantwon spread so much joy in Washington that some of that positive energy came back to Hines in unexpected ways.
One day, after Hines opened a dating app on his phone, he came face to face with a photo of himself (in a panda costume) with his arms around a woman who had visited the zoo and posed for the photo with Pantwon. .
“I thought it was so hilarious, I was like, ‘Wow, people really like this, people really like pandas,'” Hines said.
The two connected on the app.
He sent her a smooth message to pick up a panda: “So, about your profile picture, I love the costume. When should I wear it again?”
In response, the woman enthusiastically responded, “No way, get out of here!!” “, Hines said.
The two men messaged for a few weeks, but never really got to know each other because the woman seemed distracted by her feeling of awe at the panda costume.
Hines recalls wistfully: “She was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m talking to the panda guy!'”
Contributor: Emily DeLetter, USA TODAY
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