The future of pandas at zoos across the United States may not be black and white.
Three giant pandas, Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cub Xiao Qi Ji, who resided in Washington, D.C.’s, National Zoo, began their trip to China last Wednesday, leaving behind an empty panda exhibit with no certainty pandas would ever again take up residence there.
With pandas disappearing from U.S. zoos, it might surprise Chicago residents the very first one brought here from China called this area home.
An adventurer meets a panda
The first live panda seen in the United States arrived at Brookfield Zoo in February 1937, according to the Chicago Zoological Society. The panda, named Su-Lin, quickly became a sensation.
Su-Lin was brought to Chicago by Pennsylvania-born author and adventurer Ruth Harkness. Harkness had set out on a search for pandas after her husband left to hunt for them in the mountainous border region between China and Tibet and never returned.
(He died in Shanghai in February 1936, according to a 2005 Sun-Times article.)
Less than two months after she officially launched her expedition in September 1936, Harkness and her team stumbled across a baby panda.
Harkness treated the baby panda as a human baby, even calling it “Baby.” She eventually named the panda Su-Lin after the sister-in-law of Quentin Young, who was the manager of her expedition and Harkness’ lover after her husband died.
Su-Lin arrives at Brookfield Zoo
On April 19, 1937, Brookfield Zoo bought Su-Lin with a $8,750 commitment to Harkness’ next expedition to China.
Eager visitors overran the zoo. Tens of thousands came in the first few days, 325,000 in the first three months, according to the Sun-Times 2005 article.
One Sunday shortly after Su-Lin met the public, attendance was reported at 53,504 visitors, one of the largest since the zoo opened, according to the zoological society.
Among the visitors were child movie star Shirley Temple, actor John Barrymore, author Helen Keller, actress Helen Hayes and Kermit Roosevelt, son of former president Theodore Roosevelt.
“A fat, woolly creature that flops about like a clown, looks like a surrealistic teddy bear, and is as bright and willful as a human child of 3 — that is the baby giant panda now residing at the Chicago Zoological park at Brookfield,” wrote the Chicago Tribune in June 1937.
Harkness initially thought Su-Lin was a female panda and returned to China to find the panda a “husband.”
She returned to Brookfield Zoo in February 1938 with a second panda — another male panda Harkness and the Brookfield Zoo staff thought was a female. He was named Mei-Mei.
The first time Su-Lin and Mei-Mei met, Su-Lin hit the panda on the nose.
Su-Lin died of pneumonia weeks after the encounter in 1938.
Uncertainty over whether pandas will return
After Su-Lin’s death, more pandas would make their way into U.S. zoos over the years. After President Richard Nixon’s visit to China during the Cold War, the National Zoo would conduct exchanges with China for the next 50 years.
The departure of the pandas at the National Zoo means the only giant pandas left in the United States are at the Atlanta Zoo. Those pandas are expected to leave Atlanta late next year.
Chinese Embassy representative Xu Xueyuan praised the benefits of the China’s multiple panda exchange agreements with zoos around the world. But she offered no hints on whether the program with American zoos will continue in the short term.
“Such collaboration has contributed strongly to the mutual understanding and friendship between the Chinese and American peoples,” she told the Associated Press. “China will continue to work closely with cooperation partners, including the United States, on the conservation and research of endangered species and biodiversity protection.”
Contributing: Associated Press, Roger K. Miller