The Boston Globe’s “Animal Beat” columnist tells the story of Ruth Harkness, the explorer who brought America its first panda bear.
When her husband died while exploring China, Harkness—a woman who brooked no fools and met the world armed with the wit of Dorothy Parker—decided to take up his goal and capture a live panda. In 1936, she traveled to China and set out for panda territory, literally wearing her dead husband’s clothes and boots (which had been refitted for the widow by Chinese tailors and shoemakers). Croke (The Modern Ark, 1997) recounts the expedition in all its exciting and exhausting detail: risky crossings of the Yangtze, bandits trying to attack the explorers. If danger was in the air, so was Eros, and Harkness had a fling in the mountains with her hunky expedition guide, Quentin Young. On November 9, she and Young found their baby panda. Harkness named the three-pounder Su-Lin, which translates as “a little bit of something very cute.” Harkness fed Su-Lin from a baby bottle and hardly let the bear out of her sight as she traveled back to Shanghai and then on to America. The pair, lady and panda, made a media sensation (Su-Lin graced the front page of The Chicago Tribune for nine days in a row). Clever capitalists marketed toy pandas, which could be had for $2.50, and Harkness eventually settled Su-Lin at the Brookfield Zoo. Croke chronicles Harkness’s subsequent journeys back to China, her eventual slide into alcoholism, and her mysterious death in a hotel bathtub in 1947. But she and Su-Lin had a long-lasting impact: the adorable panda galvanized more conservationism than a thousand speeches by activists ever could. “Every time a biologist treks into the bamboo forest, or a conservation group underwrites research,” writes Croke, “Harkness’s mission lives on.”
Kudos are due for recovering the story of a larger-than-life woman and her tiny, famous panda bear.