Why you should care

Because both people and opinions change all the time.

Ruth Harkness sat down at her camp and began reflecting on the mission that had taken her halfway across the world — far from her comfortable Manhattan life. It was October 1936, and with the clacking of her heavy typewriter, she put down her hopes, fears and resolve in a letter to a friend: “I don’t know whether it will be humanly possible to get a panda or not, but I feel that if it is, I will.”

Ruth Harkness may have been far more comfortable holding a cocktail and cigarette than a pistol or compass, yet the toast of Manhattan’s high society was camping by bamboo forests in the shadow of Sichuan province’s snowcapped mountains in China. She wanted a panda, a creature so rare then that “there probably aren’t more than three white people who have ever seen one,” she wrote. More importantly, Harkness wanted to bring a living panda back to the United States.

“This was just at the point when that whole ‘going on a big expedition and shooting everything you see’ was beginning to change,” says Michael Kiefer, author of Chasing the Panda, a book about the expedition. He points out that, until about the 1930s, any sightings of unknown or mysterious creatures were almost always down the barrel of an explorer’s loaded gun.

It was like Ruth Harkness had brought back a unicorn.

Michael Kiefer, author

Harkness was no explorer. That role she left to her beloved husband, Bill, a charismatic and wealthy man and “one of the first ‘bring them back alive’ hunters,” Kiefer explains. But she did share a degree of Bill’s adventurous nature, so when he died suddenly at 34 while in Shanghai on an expedition for a panda, she announced that she had inherited more than just his fortune. As she put it, she had “inherited an expedition.”

Ruth elizabeth harkness and su lin

Ruth Elizabeth Harkness and Su Lin.

Source Public Domain/Wikipedia

Within the year, the 36-year-old woman who once said she wouldn’t walk a city block if she could take a cab was trekking up to 30 miles a day along the rugged Tibetan landscape. Not that she was slumming it. In one of her many letters to a good friend, she wrote, “In spite of all efforts to keep down luggage, we left in true caravan style,” describing her 16 bearers, six “loads,” one cook and her Chinese-American guide, Quentin Young.

In Young, Harkness found more than just the guide who would bring her the prized panda. The two developed a relationship over the course of the expedition, though there is some suggestion they weren’t completely on the same page. “Quentin found her a little peculiar,” says Kiefer, referring to how Harkness wore a kind of turban on her head and seemed odd. “She was drinking and at one point smoked opium, which scandalized him,” he adds.

But the team as a whole worked together well, despite the obvious incongruity of a thirtysomething Manhattan lady trekking with a group of Chinese hunters. In another letter to a friend, Harkness remarked, “I was accepted by those men with less comment probably than a woman who rides in a smoking car from New York to Philadelphia.”

Then, in early November, they finally came across that elusive prize: a panda bear, a baby no less, discovered alone and nestled in the hollow of a tree. They named it Su Lin, which roughly translates to “a little bit of something cute.”

After some understandable confusion with Chinese customs on her way out, Harkness sailed out from Shanghai with Su Lin tucked into her coat, paying a $10 fee for the transportation of a “dog.” Upon her return to U.S. shores, however, there was no subterfuge or subtlety. This was a celebration, and her audience was enraptured from the start.

“It was like Ruth Harkness had brought back a unicorn,” Kiefer says, noting how she captured headlines for nearly a month after her return.

As Harkness searched for a home for the panda, she kept Su Lin with her wherever she traveled. “At the Biltmore Hotel, the explorer snuggled deep in an otter fur coat with the windows of the room raised high to preserve the native Tibetan climate of the panda,” according to one New York Times report.

Eventually Brookfield Zoo in Chicago bought Su Lin from Harkness for a little under $9,000 — a fair sum at the time. But for Harkness the amount was meant as a fund for future adventures, and the zoo more than made up for its initial investment. Brookfield reported record-breaking attendance after the panda’s acquisition, with up to 50,000 people passing through its gates on a single day.

“At the time, this was a mythical beast. All these famous people came to the zoo to ‘experience’ this,” Kiefer says, calling it “a major tourist attraction.”

Today, the giant panda is considered the prototypical “charismatic megafauna,” its symbol synonymous with animal conservation and animal endangerment. The World Wildlife Foundation, in considering their logo in 1961, wrote that their “founders were aware of the need for a strong, recognizable symbol that would overcome all language barriers.” The panda was the obvious choice.

While much of that legacy can be traced back to Harkness’ work in bringing Su Lin to the States, and a year later another panda called Mei Mei, according to Kiefer, the immediate response was anything but good for panda conservation. “All of a sudden all these people go and start pulling pandas out of China front and left,” he explains, referring to it as a frenzied “panda-monium.”

Harkness drastically changed Western perceptions on the observing and acquiring of exotic or rare animal species. Harkness would only see the beginning of that change, sadly, as her heavy drinking got the better of her and she died in 1947 at the age of 46.

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