MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Saturday morning, hundreds flocked to the Memphis Zoo to say goodbye to Ya Ya as she heads back home to China.

“I remember when the pandas first came and, just a big historic moment to see the beginning chapter when I was younger and the closing chapter. It is kind of incredible, Memphian Hunter Zyriek-Rhodes said. 

It was a celebration of their 20-year partnership with the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens and by the time the day was over, thousands wished Ya Ya safe travels.

“They have been here for a long time; it’s going to be sad to see them go but it has been a blessing to have them,” 

Those who attended were able to sign goodbye letters and watch cultural performances.

“I thought it was beautiful, I loved the kind of different influences of colter, I loved that different Memphis organizations participated in it and this was a beautiful merge of a lot of different things,” Emma Zyriek-Rhodes of Memphis said. 

Ya Ya  was very active walking around and facing the crowd as she ate her breakfast almost as if she knew everyone was there to see her. Zoo president and CEO Matt Thompson has been with YA YA since day one flying with her when she made her trip to the US.

She has always been kind of a small animal, and she has gotten some attention for looking different, but she makes up for that in personality. She’s just a wonderful animal, I have been with her since she was almost a baby. 

That Giant Panda’s stay has not been without controversy. Over the years, some animal activists claimed the pandas were mistreated and neglected, forcing zoo staff to repeatedly assure the public the pandas were healthy and well-maintained. 

Zoo President and CEO Matt Thompson said Ya Ya is going home healthy.

He said panda experts agree.

“I know what has happened here and I extraordinarily proud of what we accomplished, to have experts from all over the world visit us and verify that just makes me feel better,” Thompson said. 

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Thompson said it is possible that pandas could return to the Memphis Zoo in the future.

Instead of sending two pandas home the Memphis zoo is only sending one. The other Giant Panda Le Le died in February due to heart disease.