Ruth Harkness and the First Live Wild Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) in the United States of America

by DerdriuMarriner

Giant pandas always draw the biggest crowds. They always top favorite animal lists. The arrival of the first live cub in the USA was in the arms of Ruth Harkness in December 1936.

*****

The word panda brings to mind charming images of:
• Roly-poly wildlife;
• Sure-fire gift ideas for stuffed animals.

But in both regards, the name in fact designates two camera-ready, unrelated mammals that are guaranteed revenue-generators for:
• Parks, reserves, and zoos;
• Photo opportunities.

Black-and-white giants (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) in the bear family Ursidae and red ringtails (Ailurus fulgens) in the weasel superfamily Musteloidea both get called pandas as Asian natives.
* People in Asia historically identify any bamboo-eating animal as a poonya.
* We know all of the above as facts because of fashion-designing, Pennsylvania-born socialite Ruth Harkness daring to complete in 1936 her husband’s dying wish to bring live panda cubs from war-torn Asia to the peace-loving United States of America.

*****

Red panda (Ailurus fulgens), also known as red cat-bear, shares with Giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) a passion for bamboo:

"Panda" is an Anglicization of poonya, "eater of bamboo."
Chengdu, Sichuan Province, southwestern China
Chengdu, Sichuan Province, southwestern China

 

Wildlife-loving amateurs and professionals access two founts of knowledge regarding giant pandas:

  • First-hand information;
  • Third-party interactions.

Viewings in parks, preserves, reserves, sanctuaries, and zoos and visits to museums respectively dominate the first above-mentioned source in regard to live proof at the former locales and with respect to preserved specimens at the latter sites. Anecdotes and documentation contrastingly epitomize the second above-mentioned source. They function as insights respectively based upon:

  • Memories and traditions conveyed generationally and verbally;
  • Observations and research recorded officially and publicly.

They have their most helpful expressions as:

  • Oral histories;
  • Scientific investigations.

The second-mentioned configuration includes taxonomies. For example, it involves the first formal presentation in 1869 of giant pandas to wildlife-lovers outside continental Asia.  

 

Chengdu, capital of China's southwestern Sichuan Province, is located on alluvial Chengdu Plain in western Sichuan Basin; to the city's west are the Qionglai Mountains:

Chengdu is the type locality for Giant Pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca); Sichuan Province provided Armand David's specimen and sourced Ruth Harkness' cubs.
Chengdu Plain, Sichuan Province, southwestern China
Chengdu Plain, Sichuan Province, southwestern China

 

Admirers of giant pandas indeed benefit from scientific descriptions conscientiously penned by Ezpeleta-born Basque Countryman Père (Armand) David (September 27, 1826 - November 10, 1900), as:  

  • Brother, novitiate, priest dedicated to Saint Vincent de Paul’s (April 24, 1581 - September 27, 1660) concerns over displaced objects and suffering peoples, 1846 - 1850;
  • Instructor in natural sciences at Italy’s Savona Lazarist College, 1851 - 1861;
  • Missionary and Muséum d’histoire naturelle de Paris (Paris Natural History Museum) naturalist in China, 1862 - 1873.

Davidian industriousness explains the ease in identifying panda habitats and populations despite the species’ reclusive elusiveness. The perfect match between pelt and taxonomy is the facilitating factor in Ruth Harkness’s retrieving live pandas and surviving to write about the adventures. 

 

Giant panda ( (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) under synonyms of Ailuropus melanoleucus or Ursus melanoleucus:

illustration by Huet from specimen sent by Armand David to Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle
H. and A. Milne-Edwards, Recherches pour servir à l'histoire naturelle des mammifères-Atlas (1868-1874), Plate 50
H. and A. Milne-Edwards, Recherches pour servir à l'histoire naturelle des mammifères-Atlas (1868-1874), Plate 50

 

The first United-Statesian extraction of live, wild giant pandas comes from Ruth Elizabeth McCombs Harkness (September 21, 1900 - July 20, 1947) in 1936. It is the first such rescue not to involve domestication or fresh-kill. It succeeds:

  • Dresden-born German zoologist Max Hugo Weigold (May 27, 1886 - July 9, 1973) expeditioning with Gera-born German ethnologist Walther Stötzner (April 13, 1882 - October 22, 1965) in 1916, pioneering the first European observations of living wild giant pandas, and purchasing a semi-domesticated cub;
  • Oyster Bay-born explorers Kermit (October 10, 1889 - June 4, 1943) and Theodore (September 13, 1887 - July 12, 1944) Roosevelt realizing -- for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History -- the first United-Statesian wild panda kill in 1925. 

 

"The Giant Panda": painting by Arthur August Jansson (1890 - 1960) of AMNH Department of Preparation, based upon photographs by Kermit Roosevelt and painting by Carl Rungius

Natural History: Journal of the American Museum of Natural History, January-February 1930, cover
Natural History: Journal of the American Museum of Natural History, January-February 1930, cover

 

The Harkness extraction constitutes a major feat realized by a woman. But its initial implementation does not represent a mission ideated by a woman. It instead gets its jump-start from:

  • The Bronx Zoo;
  • The New York Zoological Society;
  • William Harvest Harkness, Jr. (January 26, 1902 - February 19, 1936).

The first two entities have historical roles in encouraging the collection of live, wild specimens to:

  • Allow the public to appreciate what the wealthy get to enjoy through private collections of human- and natural-made wonders;
  • Let scientists compare information deduced from environment-, preservative-, and storage-impacted specimens with empirical data;
  • Permit funding sources to observe the educational value and socio-economic worth of having institutional collections on par with Europe’s. 

 

Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), largest living species of lizard: the first exhibition of a living komodo dragon in the U.S. was at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, thanks to Ruth's husband, William Harvest Harkness, Jr.

Komodo National Park, Lesser Sunda Islands (Nusa Tenggara), Indonesia, Maritime South East Asia
Komodo National Park, Lesser Sunda Islands (Nusa Tenggara), Indonesia, Maritime South East Asia

 

Collection-builders and collection-holders converge with Bill escorting three Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis) from Indonesia to New York in May 1934. That feat and Bill's throat cancer-related death in Shanghai, China impel wife Ruth (married September 9, 1934 - February 19, 1936) to travel by:

  • American Trader departing April 17, 1936, New York – London;

  • SS Tancred, Marseilles - Shanghai;

  • Whangpu steamer and Mei Ling and Standard Oil ferries, Shanghai - Chengdu;

  • Caravan to Qionglai Shan's (Sichuan Mountains') Wassu lands;

  • Douglas airplane, Chengdu – Shanghai;

  • President McKinley arriving December 18, 1936, Shanghai – San Francisco;

  • Overland Limited arriving December 22, Chicago;

  • Commodore Vanderbilt arriving December 23, Manhattan.

It makes history.

 

Ruth Elizabeth Harkness and Su Lin

"Mrs. Harkness Returns Minus Panda," The China Journal, Vol. XXIX, No. 2 (August 1938)
"Mrs. Harkness Returns Minus Panda," The China Journal, Vol. XXIX, No. 2 (August 1938)

 

The discovery around 9:00 a.m. on November 9, 1936 near Camp Two -- at 10,000 – 11,000 feet (3,048 – 3,352.8 meters) above sea level -- alters 3-pound (1.36-kilogram), 2-month-old orphaned Su-Lin's (Little Cutie) life cycle and natural history. It informs Baby's:

  • Exiting as a $20.00-valued “dog”;

  • Inhabiting Ruth's Manhattan apartment at 333 West Eighteenth Street;

  • Joining Chicago's Brookfield Zoo on February 8, 1937.

It is the catalyst to Ruth's:

  • Accessing six days from Chaopo Mei-Mei (“Little Sister”) on December 18, 1937;

  • Journeying by Empress of Russia, January 28 – February 12, 1938, to Victoria, British Columbia with the 13-pound (5.90-kilogram), wicker basket-smuggled orphan;

  • Train-riding by California Limited to Chicago, February 18, 1938.

 

the excitement of first live panda in the United States: poster of Su Lin at Brookfield Zoo

"Brookfield Zoo--By the "L" / Long": Works Projects Administration poster; Date stamped on verso: June 15 1938
Work Projects Administration Poster Collection
Work Projects Administration Poster Collection

Conclusion

 

The Harkness-effectuated panda extractions come to a total of three. Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History claims Baby Little Cutie's (1936 – 1938) taxidermized body. Chicago's Brookfield Zoo commemorates him and Ruth's Little Sister (1936 – 1942). But no institution details life cycles and natural histories for Su-Sen. Ruth's Little Tomboy exists nowhere since giant panda lifespans average 20 – 30 years. The 50-pound (22.68-kilogram) orphan cub nevertheless has the distinction of:

  • Extraction near Chengdu in June 1938;

  • Release on Qionglai Shan in July 1938.

It is Ruth's prescience which informs her compassionate exfiltrations, exotic domestications, and wild re-introductions. Ruth's appreciation of cultural and natural diversity indeed predicts the twenty-first century's wildlife-loving environmental activists and educators.

 

 

Taxidermized Su Lin at The Field Museum: "Ruth Harkness captured Su Lin...and brought him to the United States....Su Lin arrived at the Brookfield Zoo February 1936 and died there of pneumonia, at about two years old, in April 1938.

An autopsy revealed that Su Lin -- thought to be female -- was really male....During his brief life, Su Lin charmed Brookfield Zoo visitors and the entire country. He appeared frequently in the press, newsreels, and on the radio."
Field Museum, Chicago, northeastern Illinois
Field Museum, Chicago, northeastern Illinois

Acknowledgment

 

My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.

 

Ruth Harkness And Su Lin The First Panda To Leave China

Published on YouTube on February 11, 2014 by most popular videos ~ URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUbePQTM4Qs

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poster of Su Lin at Brookfield Zoo ~

Visit the Brookfield Zoo by the "L" / Gregg: Work Projects Administration poster; Date stamped on verso: June 15 1938.
Work Projects Administration Poster Collection
Work Projects Administration Poster Collection
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China's Most Exotic Animal

Here is the astonishing true story of Ruth Harkness, the Manhattan bohemian socialite who, against all but impossible odds, trekked to Tibet in 1936 to capture the most mysterious animal of the day.
Ruth Harkness

Panda collage: purple t-shirt ~ Available via AllPosters

Panda Collage
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The lady and the panda: An adventure by Ruth Harkness

Ruth Harkness

Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine:

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 10/24/2014, DerdriuMarriner
 
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