Antwon Hines has given his last bear hug. At least in costume at the Smithsonian National Zoo.
Hines served for years as the mascot of the zoo’s popular exhibit, embodying the iconic black-and-white bears and posing for many a photo as the zoo’s designated greeter in a panda suit.
“People were so happy to see me walking through the park,” Hines told USA TODAY. “It was really special. I felt elevated at that place because of that.”
Hines left the panda costume and zoo in 2022, ahead of the popular bears’ return to their native of China. He moved on because he couldn’t bear to stick around long enough for the mascot to become obsolete, he said.
Now that the giant pandas have left the Washington National Zoo, Hines feels like a chapter of his personal history has also come to a close.
Hines, known as “Pantwon” when he wore the furry suit, greeted thousands of zoo visitors and gave out many, many hugs. Zoo staff could always count on Hines to be “full of energy and light and warmth,” said Lynn Mento, the former director of Friends of the National Zoo, which employed Hines and other guest services workers.
“It brings back so many memories, that suit,” Hines, 26, said. “It’s just always gonna be part of me.”
Pantwon met most of the professional sports teams in Washington and spread holiday cheer through the streets of the city from onboard the Smithsonian’s mobile Zoo Lights truck during some of the darkest days of the pandemic in 2020. The pandas he represented 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 started working at the zoo as an exhibit greeter. One day, he was gathered with colleagues when they got word of a panda costume in need of someone to wear it. Other staff grumbled but Hines said, “I’ll do it!”
“Those three words started a five-and-a-half year journey,” Hines said. “It woke up this personality that I have always had, a very social personality.”
Giant pandas departure from National Zoo
Giant pandas Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and their cub Xiao Qi Ji left the zoo for China on Nov. 8.
They were originally expected to depart in early December, according to a news release. But the Smithsonian bumped up the deadline, in keeping with the institution’s three-year contract with China Wildlife Conservation.
Hines dressed up as Pantwon the panda bear as early as 2016, pumping up visitors in line, before they entered the zoo’s often crowded indoor Giant Panda Habitat exhibit, home to the three black-and-white bears.
Pantwon’s jolly disposition, combined with pandas’ naturally debonair coloring and inky eye mask markings 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 while surrounded by gleeful patrons near the park’s visitor center.
After volunteering to wear the suit in 2016, Hines worked as Pantwon several days a month and was regularly asked to make appearances outside the zoo as well, including at sports half-time shows and local department stores.
Woodley Park neighborhood mourns panda departure
Many of the zoo’s visitors came for the pandas, arriving decked out in panda hats, panda backpacks and other panda gear.
“Everybody who went to the zoo tried to see the pandas, everybody wanted to see them,” Yael Krigman, who owns a bakery across from the zoo, told USA TODAY.
The bears were local celebrities in Washington’s Woodley Park neighborhood, their likeness displayed along Connecticut Avenue in the form of two prominent panda bear sidewalk statues, artwork and signage in restaurant and shop windows. Krigman’s shop, Baked by Yael, also got in on the fun, selling panda bear cake pops.
“The pandas were our neighbors, they were part of the community,” Krigman, 42, said. “You just couldn’t help but feel good when you’d see them, when you’d think about them, they just brought so much joy to so many people.”
Now, the neighborhood is feeling an indelible loss, she said.
Around 80% of foot traffic in the neighborhood comes from the zoo, according to Robert Meins, executive director of Woodley Park Main Street. He said he plans to calculate how much that number declines in the coming year in a post-panda era.
“The pandas are interwoven into the fabric of the neighborhood at the moment,” Meins said. “It’s not clear what the impact of their departure would be.”
‘I was really upset’
Hines knew he couldn’t be the “panda man” forever, because the bears’ stay in Washington was coming to a close.
Hines worked for Friends of the National Zoo through 2021, often donning the panda costume. He left for a brief stint and returned to the zoo again in 2022, before leaving for good.
“I was really upset that the pandas were leaving,” he said. “I figured, if they’re leaving, there probably wouldn’t be much of a reason for me to be there.”
He now works as an event coordinator for the federal government and private sector in Washington.
While Hines left the bear costume behind, the bear costume never really left Hines.
Since he last wore the costume, Hines has reflected a lot on what the character meant to people. Pantwon spread so much joy in Washington that some of that positive energy would boomerang 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 the panda suit) with his arm around a woman who’d visited the zoo and posed for the image with Pantwon.
“I thought it was so hilarious, I was like, ‘Wow, people really do love this, people really love pandas,'” Hines said.
The two connected on the app.
He messaged her a smooth panda-pick-up line: “So, about your profile picture – I love the costume. When should I wear it again?”
In response, the woman excitedly messaged back, “No way, get out of here!!'” Hines said.
The two messaged for a few weeks, but they never really got to know each other because the woman seemed distracted by her sense of awe over the panda suit.
Hines recalled, wistfully, “She was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m talking to the panda guy!'”
Contributing: Emily DeLetter, USA TODAY