SAN DIEGO (AP) – On his first birthday Thursday, giant panda cub Mei Sheng delighted visitors by playing for the first time in snow delivered to him at the San Diego Zoo. He also sat on his ice cake, wrestled with his mom and got his coat incredibly dirty.

He had no interest at all in the more than 700 birthday wishes sent him via e-mail from as far away as Ireland and Argentina. His guests still couldn’t resist him.

“Darling!” exclaimed Erin Anderson, who was visiting with her three children and their grandma. “Isn’t he cute?”

Zoo officials say Mei Sheng is more than cute; he’s only the second panda born in the United States to survive to his first birthday. Only about 1,600 pandas are thought to live in the wild and about 170 in captivity, most in China.

Since his birth, Mei Sheng has become quite a celebrity, much like his half-sister, Hua Mei, was when she celebrated the same milestone in 2000.

But researchers at the San Diego Zoo say Mei Sheng, whose Chinese name means “Born in the U.S.A.” as well as “Beautiful Life,” has been a very different baby from Hua Mei.

He complained more and was more demanding. He was also a little shyer – preferring to stay close to his mom, Bai Yun, rather then venture out of the den.

In 12 months, he’s grown from a 4-ounce newborn the size of a stick of butter to a 54-pound fur-ball. He’s learned to walk and to climb trees. He’s still nursing, but he is eating apples and carrots and bamboo leaves, said senior giant panda keeper Kathy Hawk.

He has also endeared himself to the public and to keepers, who call him their “Baby Boy,” “Mr. M” and “Goof-ball.” Oh, and “Pooper,” which he responds to.

Hawk said next year will be a big one too, when Mei Sheng probably will be weaned, start eating the more solid parts of bamboo, and be separated from his mother.

For now, he’s working on kicking the shy thing. Thursday he seemed well on his way.

“Today they’re putting on a really good show,” said regular visitor Joan Grant.

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AP-ES-08-19-04 2229EDT

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