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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Lady and the Panda

Air Date: Week of

Ruth Harkness and Su-Lin in the United States. (Credit: Photo: Mary Lobisco ©)

In 1936, the most sought after prize among the world’s adventurers was the rare and elusive panda bear. That the winner was a well-known New York dress designer and socialite seems nearly impossible. She was, after all, the person who once famously quipped, "the two things I hate most in life are going to bed at night and getting up in the morning." Author Vicky Croke unravels this improbable tale in her biography of Ruth Harkness called "The Lady and the Panda," and she is interviewed by host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: In 1936, New York socialite and dress designer Ruth Harkness, who once said she wouldn’t walk a block in Manhattan if she could take a cab, set out on an impossible journey to do an impossible task. She traveled to the most rugged and remote terrain of China to capture one of the planet’s most elusive creatures, the panda bear.

She walked up to thirty miles a day in her quest, amid the dangers of China’s raging civil war. Winning the race to be the first person to bring a live giant panda to the west, she set off a national sensation in the U.S. upon her return.

Joining me now is author and Living on Earth contributor Vicki Croke, who’s written a biography of Ruth Harkness, called "The Lady and the Panda." Vicki, good to talk with you again.

CROKE: Steve, thank you for having me on.

CURWOOD: Now, how did she get into this? Obviously, a dress designer doesn’t set out in life to go bring back the first live panda.

CROKE: She had always fantasized about visiting exotic places and she fell in love with a man named William Harvest Harkness, Jr. You can tell just from that name his background. He was an ivy league educated rich boy, an adventuring rich boy and he joined in this great race, which was very hot at the time, to try to be the first person to bring a giant panda back to the States. He went over to China, spent two years there and died very young, 34 years old, of throat cancer. And amazingly, at that moment, Ruth decided she did not want his mission to die with him and that she would take up his cause.

CURWOOD: Tell me more about Ruth Harkness. What was she like as a person, do you think?

CROKE: Very intriguing person and what we know today from the few people who are alive to tell the story of having met Ruth Harkness is that she’s the kind of person who would just light up a room. Very charismatic, very striking. Every man wanted to romance her. Every woman wanted to be her best friend. She’d already transformed herself once before. She came from a small town in western Pennsylvania, and when she moved to Manhattan she became a dress designer and a socialite sought after for every party. She was a quintessential flapper. She said that there were only two things she hated to do: go to sleep at night and get up in the morning.

CURWOOD: A lot of people were trying to get pandas in China. Some pelts have been brought back. No one had brought a live one back and all these adventurers were men. How is it that a woman is able to succeed here? And why, in fact, do you think from your studying this story do you think that being a woman perhaps gave her an edge to succeed?

CROKE: Even at the time, people began to say that she had not succeeded despite being a woman, but because of it. Many of the western adventurers, all male, would come into a country and they’d lay out the maps, they’d hire porters and they would direct themselves to wherever they thought the prize would be. Ruth Harkness took a very different tack. She came to Shanghai. She decided she did not want to work with fellow westerners. She wanted to work with a Chinese partner who was Quentin Young, 21 years old, and she listened to what he had to say. He had explored in that area before. He spoke the language and he told her he could bring her to where the pandas were.

CURWOOD: Okay, she goes to the edge of China, way up towards Tibet, to look for those pandas. How does she find one?

CROKE: It’s an interesting story. Soon after they got to the mountains, the Qionglai Sagan, they had three camps set up and within days of being in the second camp she went out with Quentin Young, the hunters and the porters. It was extremely foggy up at that elevation, which was probably about 10,000 feet. And that morning they were hiking through the wet bamboo forest, soaking wet from head to toe, couldn’t see more than a foot in front of them, and a rifle was fired and Harkness was petrified. She’d given orders that no panda was to be shot; she was afraid of what was happening around her, but she couldn’t see. It was absolute chaos and confusion and then they all heard a baby cry and Quentin Young ran over to the hollowed out rotted tree nearby and he pulled out from that hole in his hands a tiny little black and white ball of fluff which was a young panda.

CURWOOD: Now, originally the notion of going to China to bring back a live panda was, I gather, to bring back, you know, a big one. Because they’re giant pandas. So, how did bringing back a baby panda fit into that vision?

CROKE: It’s interesting. It solved a problem that a lot of people had thought about and that is that bamboo is the diet of an adult panda. Also, pandas are rather large, pretty ferocious animals. They want to be left alone. So all of the western hunters who came in brought traps and chains and cages in order to subdue these animals they assumed they would catch. Ruth Harkness in Shanghai one night thought, was thinking about the bamboo problem--how do you keep feeding a panda when you take it away from the bamboo forest? And she had an epiphany and she turned on the lamp next to her bed and she wrote down on a list, "baby bottle" and "formula." And so she had with her the most important equipment she could have brought and that is a means of feeding a baby panda. And as luck would have it, that is exactly what she got.

CURWOOD: So, how does she manage to get this animal across the world? I mean, one that’s still very difficult to keep in the zoo and nearly impossible to breed… And why do you suppose that she was thus the first able to do this?

CROKE: Today, just this week, we know that a baby panda was born in the National Zoo and everyone’s very excited about it. If that panda survives it will be only the third, young panda, infant panda, born in the U.S. to survive into adulthood and that really highlights how incredible Ruth Harkness’ accomplishment is, because she took her little baby panda from deep inside the forest between Tibet and China to Shanghai, then on a luxury liner across the ocean to San Francisco. She went from there to Chicago and on to Manhattan and then she kept the baby in Manhattan in her flat, went from cocktail party to cocktail party, rode around in taxi cabs with him.

CURWOOD: With this baby panda in her arms?

CROKE: Yes, it was a well-socialized baby panda. He went to the best parties and teas that New York could offer.

CURWOOD: Oh, my.

CROKE: And what we believe today is that she was just intuitive. She kept that baby on her body basically the entire time. She never let him go. She said she was going to learn how to raise a baby panda from him. And he told her when he was hungry and she fed him when he was hungry. And then, even later once he had been placed in the Brookfield Zoo, I came across a letter that Ruth wrote to the zoo and she said to them, "I’m no biologist, but I think this baby should not be fed," and he was being fed at the time boiled vegetables exclusively, she said, "I think he needs bamboo and also other, what she said, "flinty substances." He needs to chew on something and it’s remarkable in this day and age to think that just her simple logic and intuition made more sense than these zoologists who consider themselves experts in animal care.

Ruth Harkness helps introduce Su-Lin to Mei-Meil at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo.
(Photo: Mary Lobisco ©)

CURWOOD: This story is on page one, what, how many days running in New York City?

CROKE: She made the front page of just about every newspaper in the country from coast to coast for weeks. She was in every newsreel on every radio station and Time magazine proclaimed her capture a scientific prize of first magnitude.

CURWOOD: Vicki, there’s this memorable scene, one that almost seems like a second turning point in the life of Ruth Harkness that she takes a panda that she’s captured in the wild back to the wild where she found her and let her go. Could you tell me that story, please?

CROKE: On her third expedition in 1938, she had in hand a very young panda that she named Su-lin and her, Ruth’s entire future would depend on her returning to the United States with a panda. She’s in Chang Dao and she realizes that the valleys where she had been before are now empty of pandas. There’s been a gold rush of other panda hunters and they are hunting and trapping as many pandas as possible. Many of them, dozens are dying along the way, either in the process of hunting them or bringing them back to Chang Dao and keeping them in cages. And she becomes heartsick. Her original vision was that she would bring back mated pairs of pandas to the United States and we would be sure that we have a population here. And what she’s seeing instead is that too many pandas are dying, that they’re not mating in the United States and so she is sitting in a Chinese pavilion in the city of Chang Dao with little Su-sen and she makes an incredible decision and that is to put her expedition in reverse as she says, and she brought Su-lin back up into the mountains where she had been caught and she sets her free.

CURWOOD: Vicki, tell me, to what extent do you think that the work of Ruth Harkness ended up being beneficial to pandas? Which I think you’d say in the end, was what she cared the most about.

CROKE: It’s interesting to me that the World Wildlife Fund, Desmond Morris, and other historians have credited Ruth Harkness with making a tipping point in the history of animal capture and that is she was doing her work in a time when men went into the forest and blasted away. She brought back this little baby panda that the world fell in love with and she made the world panda-conscious. As one historian said, she did more for the giant panda that day when she hit the docks of San Francisco with Su-lin than most wildlife biologists can do in a whole lifetime. So I think what Ruth did was pretty remarkable. And to the American public it was an important point in time where they fell in love with an individual animal. An animal that seemed to them to have a personality and a right of its own to live. And so never again would it be considered romantic to go off and kill animals in the forest and bring back their pelts.

CURWOOD: Vicki Croke’s book is called "The Lady and the Panda: the True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China’s Most Exotic Animal." Thank you Vicki, for taking this time.

CROKE: A sheer pleasure, Steve. Thank you.

[MUSIC: Billie Holiday "Got To Love Me" from ‘Ken Burns Jazz Collection’ (Polygram Records - 2000)



"The Lady and the Panda" by Vicki Croke


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