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Zoo Atlanta's panda cub turns 1

ATLANTA - By all accounts, Mei Lan's first year was a big one.

Zoo Atlanta's giant panda cub learned to walk, made her official public debut and grew a full covering of black-and-white fur. The playful panda - who turns 1 on Thursday - was the only giant panda cub born in an American zoo last year, which meant the world watched as Zoo Atlanta's first panda offspring grew.

And the zoo has a long tally to prove it: 31,000 plush panda toys sold, 11.3 million hits on the zoo's online panda cam, membership revenue up 27 percent and zoo visitors up 30 percent.

'We felt like everybody in the world was celebrating with us,' said Dennis Kelly, the zoo's president and chief executive. 'It's brought in a whole group of folks who now have a new reason to come and experience the zoo and learn a lot of things.'

It's tough to believe Mei Lan, whose name means 'Atlanta Beauty' in Chinese Mandarin, was once just the size of a stick of butter. The cub weighed only four ounces and had no hair when she was born a year ago.

But now she looks like a pint-sized version of her mom, Lun Lun. She's losing her baby teeth and is working on a full set of the long claws that make pandas good tree climbers.

There's no telling how long Mei Lan and her parents will stay in Atlanta. Pandas cost the zoo about $2 million a year - including $1.1 million in loan fees paid to China, which owns the animals. Zoo officials are still deciding whether they'll keep Lun Lun and Yang Yang beyond their 2009 lease, zoo spokeswoman Susan Elliott said.

'We do know we've made great strides as it relates to giant panda conservation,' she said. 'But we have to look at what's best for our institution.'

On a recent morning, Mei Lan lounged in the panda's air-conditioned indoor 'day room' designed for zoo visitors who want to see the bears on scorching hot days. As onlookers snapped photographs, Mei Lan gnawed lazily on a piece of bamboo from atop a climbing structure.

The cub has attracted a small group of fans - mostly retired senior citizens - who visit the zoo regularly to check up on her progress.

'I thought 'How often do you get to see a panda cub? I am going to enjoy this panda as much as I can,' said Marianne Gilmore, a retiree from Decatur in suburban Atlanta, during one of her weekly visits to see the cub. 'They're just cute, like puppies and kittens.'