Su-Lin, China’s first living panda

Even while traveling I learn new things about our city, Chicago.

Earlier this year, my son and I visited the giant panda habitat at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It is one of only three zoos in the United States that have pandas: the Memphis Zoo Y atlanta zoo are the others (The San Diego Zoo he had pandas for more than 23 years before returning his two to China in 2019).

While at the National Zoo, I found out that Brookfield Zoo was the first American zoo to care for the first live panda brought here from China, and the story is truly incredible.

The pup named Su-Lin, which loosely translates to “a little of something very cute,” and her guardian, Ruth Harkness, became instant celebrities when they arrived by ship in San Francisco in November 1936. Prior to that time, The only pandas seen by most Westerners were the stuffed ones.

In “The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer Who Brought Back China’s Most Exotic Animal,” journalist Vicki Constantine Croke details the unlikely expedition to find, care for, transport and establish a home for the baby panda nearly 90 years ago. It’s a fantastic read that explains the journey better than I can in this newsletter. And he explains through Harkness’s own letters to friends and family his love and respect for China and the people in it. Back when it was easier, and more prestigious, to slaughter a rare breed and give its skin to the highest bidder, Su-Lin’s story also hints at the modern notion of preservation and conservation.

Today, all captive and wild pandas are owned by the Chinese government, which lends them to animal care facilities for breeding, research, and protection. I call panda diplomacyAgreements between China and US facilities are often expensive and specific, but have contributed to the growth of the panda population. Previously in danger of extinction, the species has been improved to vulnerable.

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As my son and I watched the three pandas at the National Zoo eat and play on a cool, misty morning with hardly anyone around, I fully understood the fascination most of Chicago must have had when Su-Lin arrived at Brookfield Zoo in 1937. These pudgy poly pandas benefit from the decades of experience animal keepers have had with the species since then.

And, if you want to know where you can still visit Su-Lin today, read on. She is close to home.

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Thank you for reading!

– Kori Rumore, Visual Reporter

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In an era before conservationists and animal rights activists questioned the hunting of wild animals for sport, the sons of President Theodore Roosevelt embarked on an expedition to China sponsored by the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. and his most prized trophy is still on display in the museum’s Hall of Asian Mammals. Read more.

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William Harkness was a Harvard-educated explorer from a wealthy New York family who set out to hunt a panda in China just 15 days after marrying Ruth Elizabeth Combs, a modestly-educated costume designer in Pennsylvania who “rarely met.” I saw a smoke in one hand and a highball in the other,” Vicki Constantine Croke later wrote.

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His death from lung cancer while in Shanghai meant that William Harkness would never get the chance to begin his mission. That’s where his inexperienced wife stepped in. Read more.

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Ruth Harkness, her partner Quentin Young, and their team discovered a baby panda in a hollow tree shortly after arriving in China’s Sichuan province in November 1936. Capturing the panda alive, Harkness had to figure out how to care for it. What did a panda eat? How often did you eat and how much? According to Croke, Harkness brought a bottle and powdered milk to the expedition, in case she came across a pup, and she became vital in keeping the pup nourished.

In its first report on the panda’s capture, the Tribune described how Su-Lin was being given human-baby treatment for her colic. Read more.

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In late December 1936, Su-Lin and Harkness were traveling by train to New York. The explorer planned to take the panda to the Bronx Zoo, but his executives refused to pay Harkness’s $20,000 fee (more than $400,000 in today’s dollars) for the transaction. The Great Depression and the threat of war meant that Harkness could not recoup his costs.

It was during a stopover in Chicago that Harkness met with the directors of the Chicago Zoo (now known as Brookfield Zoo). She was willing to leave Su-Lin in the zoo’s care if the group financed her next expedition to China, with the goal of finding a mate for the panda. While the team pondered the proposal, the lady and her gang moved to New York. Read more.

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With no agreement but no options, Harkness returned to Chicago with Su-Lin in early 1937. He agreed to loan the panda to Brookfield Zoo for a three-month trial. The first day the pup was shown to the public, he “huddled up in a chicken coop and slept and slept,” the Tribune reported. After the zoo agreed to give Harkness $10,000 for his second expedition to China, he tearfully kissed Su-Lin goodbye. Read more.

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Thousands of visitors, up to 60,000 per day, according to one estimate, visited the panda.

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The Tribune called it “a fat, shaggy creature that slumps like a clown, looks like a surreal teddy bear, and is as bright as a 3-year-old human child.” Read more.

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On their second excursion to China, Harkness and his team found a panda they originally named Diana (after Quentin Young’s wife), but later chose Mei-Mei, which means “little sister.” Unfortunately for Harkness, his contract with the Brookfield Zoo stipulated that he must capture a male panda. Still, the zoo accepted Su-Lin’s playmate in early 1938 and gave the explorer $7,500 for a third trip to China.

“This time I will stay indoors until I get a male giant panda, or until my money runs out,” he told reporters. Read more.

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The Vintage Tribune newsletter is a deep dive into the Chicago Tribune archives featuring photos and stories about the people, places and events that shape the city’s past, present and future.

The first panda to live in captivity died on April 1, 1938, after a brief illness and became front-page news. A necropsy performed by Field Museum experts later revealed that the panda died of pneumonia.

When contacted in New York, Harkness broke down in tears, telling reporters: “This is terrible. I never expected something like this to happen. He was the sweetest, best-natured little animal he had ever seen. I don’t know what this will affect my plans.” Read more.

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Su-Lin’s necropsy revealed another important detail: the panda was male and not female, as previously believed! Read more.

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The former clothing designer turned expedition leader wouldn’t bring another panda to the US Years of drinking and bouts of depression took their toll. She was discovered in a bathtub in a Pittsburgh hotel, dead of “acute alcoholic gastroenteritis,” the Tribune reported in 1947. She was 46 years old. Read more.

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The Field Museum’s Mammal Hall has the preserved animals on display. Watch a video.

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