A New York fashion designer – turned – explorer introduces the world to what is now one of the most loved yet endangered animals.

This may come as a surprise, but there was a time when pandas were considered violent and mysterious creatures – their captures seen as conquests for only the bravest of hunters.  In fact, it wasn’t until 1936, when Ruth Harkness, a New York fashion designer brought a giant panda cub back with her from China (fulfilling one of her late husband’s dreams), that Americans were introduced to the docile bear – sparking the current state of “panda-monium.”

The Lady & The Panda - Fashion Designer Ruth Harkness
The Lady & The Panda – Fashion Designer Ruth Harkness

Harkness, in Indiana Jones-like style, entered the dense forests of China not knowing what to expect of the great creatures.  She made this trek with a local team and her trusted guide Quentin Young, a Chinese-American familiar with the culture and geography of China. In early winter, as the rest of the team was tracking an adult panda, Quentin and Ruth discovered a baby cub nestled inside a rotting tree. Ruth, who had the foresight to bring baby bottles with her, fed the tiny creature and set back to retrace her steps out of the forest. She emerged with something that no man or hunter had ever been able to, a live baby panda.

Ruth quickly returned to America, smuggling in with her the cub named Su-Lin – the Chinese equivalent for “a little something very cute.” Anything but ferocious, the little animal captured the hearts of everyone it encountered, first Harkness, and soon after, the country.

While Ruth negotiated with American zoos, Su-Lin stayed with her in her Manhattan apartment. Eventually the bear was sold to Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, that, like all zoos and organizations seeking to house pandas, had to pay fees to China earmarked for land and species conservation and related research efforts. Ruth returned to China and brought back a second panda, Mei Mei. Currently there are only three zoos that house pandas in the U.S.: San Diego, Memphis, Atlanta and Washington D.C. The World Wildlife Fund, an organization that has worked with the Chinese government for the past two decades on panda protection, has taken part in these proceedings, carefully monitoring the arrangements to ensure that pandas will have state-of-the-art facilities. In addition, those petitioning for a panda are required to show the Chinese government how their exhibitions will play a role in the preservation of the species.

There are approximately only 1,600 Giant Pandas left worldwide. China has a potential 5,000 square miles of habitat for the panda, but due to deforestation, habitat space has been greatly reduced. The limited land has made it extremely difficult for pandas to search for bamboo, their main source of food, which flowers only at certain times of the year.

Little did Ruth Harkness know over sixty years ago, when she smuggled the baby cub out of China to the U.S. and introduced the world to the peaceful species, that the panda would become one of America’s greatest sweethearts, its gentleness giving way to a commercial craze lasting decades. Thankfully, the panda  continues to inspire extreme efforts to keep this ambassador of endangered species alive and flourishing in its homeland.

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