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Panda Wishes

Abridged version for Students and Teachers

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A time for loving pandas, by E B MASLOFF



A Time for Loving Pandas   By E.B. Masloff   this article was   previously published for thanks to the wonderful Deborah Watson whom I gratefully thank and look up to for support.

 It was 1936 when we Americans saw for the first time, a living panda.  It was a time for learning about a new kind of animal, one that no had ever seen alive in captivity before.  It was no surprise to me that this amazing living creature was brought to us by a woman.  She has been close to my heart most my life, because I too, knew her amazing story thanks to my Grandfather, who was her photographer and friend.


Who was Ruth Harkness?  Ruth was a  dressmaker/designer living in New York City in the thirties.  Ruth’s long time companion William Harkness was an avid adventurer and he teamed up with F.Tangier Smith, a professional animal collector. Together the men went in search for an unknown animal at that time, the Chinese Giant Panda.  She wished she could go with them, and explore ancient China and the beauty of its‘ culture and people. William, or Bill as she called him did make her his wife shortly before the trip commenced, but she was still not invited to go on this trip.  Ruth did not carry the scientific credits that William did, nor did she have the years of expert experience that F. Tangier Smith had accomplished.  Young Ruth was not hindered conventional thinking, and she never gave up on her dream for a panda adventure, or a family with Bill.  Not long after the men set out, Ruth was receiving letters of encouragement and detail about the plans being made.  Only to find out later, that her Husband was in a hospital with a terminal illness, caught from the orient and would die before he would ever see the animal known as a giant panda.  Reading the letter her husband wrote, Ruth decieded right then and there, to get on a plane and go to China to finish what her husband started.  Even when many tried to discourage her from going, including her late husbands partner whom she dubbed Zoology in honor of his animal knowledge and skill.  With the only family being a cat and a maid, Ruth set out on her own path to find the panda bear she dreamed of, and never looked back with regret.


When Ruth arrives in China she finds her late husband in an urn, with no answers or explanations.  She must uncover his luggage and cargo, to find out the many facets of his hunting style, which turned out to be quite different than hers.  Ruth wanted nothing to do with big game hunters, she was not out to find and sell animals.  She somehow knew, after some inner soul searching, that she would like to capture a small panda, because the thought of a large adult would be scary and too heavy for her group to carry back alive.  Giant pandas were mysterious and unknown, and it was irresistibly intriguing to be on the forefront of exploring in a time when there was still  this unknown creature waiting to be found.  She makes a wish for an infant, something not too difficult to bring back alive. All the while she is looking through her husbands things, and his absence from her made her heart yearn for the love they planned to discover.  That was her best intuition working for her, because at that moment she would leave behind the guns and ammunition of the past, and remember one glass milk bottle and a nipple, and a few cans of milk for her future.  Ruth was a small woman, and wearing all the cumbersome attire for the adventure would be too much for her, and the thought of carrying a gun was also not agreeable to her. She wrote in her book about it, “Tangier and Bill had been thus far with enough ammunition for what looked like an army”, now it was all hers, she was completely untrained in shooting or hunting the mere idea of killing to her was repulsive, so the entire arsenal was packed up and left behind.  Besides becoming ill for a time, her time was spent planning for the long trip up the mountain.  She tried to speak to as many locals as she could to learn about the terrain she was about to enter.  She was told by Tangier not to enter his territory or come near his group in order to not endanger his efforts of the same. I think she took this as a challenge, and she saw to it that if her husband would have been there he would not have had to put up with that, so neither did she.  She knew her one lacking was a real guide, someone whom she could trust with her life, and her dreams. This was about to change, and it would tip the scale in her favor.


Ruth really loved the Orient, she describes the sights with great affection and detail, and it is her interest in this country and its people that keep her inspired. In it’s the rich culture and ancient temples that she was allowed to stay in and enjoy as she traveled up the mountains to find her panda. Her group was fascinating to the many indigenous people who had never seen an American Woman, and her fame grew when she spoke of seeking the precious Chinese animal.  Her luck was good she would get a call from Jack Young.  He had heard about her, and he offered his help, finally a friend.

  Jack Young was known for his guidance to the Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, and his entourage on his historic panda adventure written about in book called “ Trailing the Giant Panda” by Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt.  Jack was gracious and kind to Ruth Harkness, he invited her to his home to help her map and plan for the long trek into uncharted territory.  His wife was also kind to her, and she told her inspiring stories of how she was a successful bear hunter, and she offered Ruth her rugged clothes to wear. The contrast must have been startling, seeing the petite woman dressed in fine silks and tiny feet, offering Ruth a woman’s gear for the adventure.  Her name was Su Lin, meaning a little bit of something precious, it was perfect for her, and Ruth did not forget her or that name. Jack explained he could not embark on another adventure at this time, but he put his confidence in his younger brother Quentin to guide Ruth on her trip. This family experience was healing for the grieving widow, she was quite torn about leaving such a wonderful atmosphere of children, family and love.  This last family event would incubate her maternal instincts enough to press on in hope of finding a baby panda.  Ruth and her guide Quentin hiked for over a month in the hot Chinese sun, into what was late October finding nothing but a few people who claimed they had only heard tales of a killer bear that could eat metal.  Even stories of Yheti cropped from the locals who lived in the Tibeten Himalayas.  Until that fateful day came, as Ruth describes,  when they were drudging on hands and knees through the dense bamboo, and a whimpering sound is heard.  Inside a dead tree is a found a tiny white, infant panda, looking abandoned and young enough to still have its eyes closed.  Ruth named the panda Su Lin after Jacks’ wife.

Ruth had started by sailing up the Yellow Sea, to Chengtu.  Then they traveled by foot to Kwanhsien, by rickshaw through the hills of Weiku Wenchuan, then to the Valley of Tsaopo-go, her base camp Ruth and Quentin would make history, by exploring just beyond their camp. Finishing first in the race to find the mysterious Chinese giant panda.


It was obvious this was no killer animal, this was a defenseless creature that was left to the clutches of its’ wild habitat.  Where was the mother?  Had she abandoned the cub, or was she off wondering in search of her many pounds of bamboo she needs to survive?  Many questions can be asked, and many have been posed, but the facts remain, this one woman changed the minds of many people when she brought back this fuzzy black and white bear. Bringing back Su Lin was an adventure as well, Ruth did not have the forms and papers Bill had, those had expired and it would take more than luck to get her past the export officials.  Ruth writes “ The list of strange places in which Su Lin and I stayed was getting to be a long a one----mountain camps, ruined castles, Buddhist Ghost Temples, Chinese inns, and old palace, a modern hotel, and finally the customs shed, and that by far was the most uncomfortable”. Being quarantined was just the beginning, it was not an easy thing for China to accept, that this little bear was just going to be “taken” out of the country like any other hunted bird or animal.  Ruth was determined to change the Chinese minds too, she worked hard for her right to call the baby hers, and never gave up trying to talk to people about it.  She met a very influential man by the name of Mr. Sowerby, an American in China who wrote and published a paper called the “Chinese Journal” he and his wife were just one of people that came to the aid of this Lady and her panda.  Ruth was more of a mother and a business woman, and I say she must have coined the phrase that night when she missed the boat, because she would have to struggle to get another passage home, in the midst of taking the best care she could of this infant panda.  American newspapers started their crusade to tell all and more about Ruth and Su Lin, but first Ruth would have to travel the distance back to New York, from China.  Her Glascony Tanker, the President McKinley sailed successfully on Dec 2, 1936 carrying Ruth and Su Lin the long awaited destiny of the future. San Francisco would be the first to greet the returning adventurers, and it was off to the St Francis Hotel.  They did not stay long, after a few days of constant celebrations, she made her way to a train that would take them both comfortably all the way back to New York. A train was the proper way for panda royalty to travel, Ruth did not want this bear to be forced into a box and put away in cargo. They were together the entire way, and one can only imagine how much the crew and passengers stopped to see this precious panda It was at a stop at Chicago for a brief photo opportunity. That a photo is taken, then, the first time my grandfather was summoned at her request to meet her. It is one of three of my most remembered images of Pandas imprinted in my memory of my family history the image is on the front of this web site. In honor of Ruth and William Harkness Animal Lovers.


 The USA had a new catch phrase  Bring-em back alive!” said by Frank Buck about the new way we see animals.  Refusing to sell her panda or even to give him to a zoo when she first arrived back to her home, Ruth claimed the attention was out of control.  Even though it was understandable there were zoologists from the Chicago Brookfield Zoo Historical Society at her door waiting to help, there were so many reporters and photographers trying to get a glimpse of Su Lin, she had to put a stop to it all.  This sounds much like the tabloids of today, again the press unfortunately was not above printing sensational stories that were untrue, or deceiving.  Smithsonian Institute Magazine showed a comic that portrayed her Husband’s partner in adventure as bringing back a- baby panda, -first, in a curiously similar story to Ruth’s, obviously trying to win the popularity of the masses already in love with Su Lin.


It is not hard to understand why she lived with Su Lin in her hotel, Algonquin apartment, keeping it at sub freezing temperatures for the comfort of her panda.  Ruth was alone for Christmas in 1936, she had no one to share her joys of motherhood with, and she longed for the relationship she once had with her long time companion William Harkness.  Ruth really loved her panda, and even though she was not a famous as he was, she wrote a book, titled “The Lady and the Panda” first published in London by Nicholson and Watson, but it was not on shelves until 1938. 


Fame was not always friendly to this couple, but the lady and her panda were in headlines of countless newspapers across the world, being touted as the Great American Explorer! And sponsored by Quaker Oats cereal, there were even cans of oats with pictures of them on the front. Ruth had many photo shoots for the famous magazines, everyone had questions because this was the first time anyone in the west had ever seen a living panda.  Ruth’s infant panda would invite emotion, and feelings, kindling the fire of motherhood to all that came close this little panda.  Ruth wrote in her book that at many social encounters grown men would approach her and say they could never shoot another animal again, because of her adorable panda.  When Ruth entertained the Colonel Roosevelt and his grandchildren at her apartment they marveled at the living creature, and were the biggest influence in putting the thought in Ruth’s head to put the panda for all to see in the Chicago Brookfield Zoo. I like the image that Ruth gives of this distinguished, presidential ruff and gruff Colonel laying on the floor to cradle the baby panda and proclaiming that he would not ever want to see this one stuffed for display, he said it would be like stuffing one of his own children!  It is enough to motivate the most passive animal lover to want to make a change for the better.

(See the quote from Ruth's Book on the page noted as "Teddy")


Ruth did not want to sell her Panda, it is clear in her writing that she felt manipulated by the press when she was trying to find the right place to house Su Lin.  It almost seemed as if she mocked the press by asking 20,000 for Su Lin, as if she was trying to say that the bear was more precious than money, Ruth wrote that the price was inflated for sensational press and even though it was hurtful to her image she would survive.

When Ruth allowed the Brookfield Zoo to intervene and help her with the bear, she had hoped to put the bear in the New York Zoo, but they passed at the opportunity and be ause of the price tag.


 It was clear where Su Lin would stay, with the same people who studied and funded Colonel Roosevelt’s expedition, the Chicago Brookfield Zoo.  Their generous offer was to house Su Lin and fund another expedition to find Su Lin and Mate.


The discoveries to follow would lead the way for our zoo’s to change the habitats of animals in captivity.  We learned that the bamboo pandas eat does not reseed itself properly, and that pandas can eat about 450 pounds a week when full grown. We learned that pandas have a dwindling natural preserve and China fought hard to protect some of it, and many people came forward to devote their lives to the discovery of this species.  Zoologists had everything to learn, and we as a country came in the thousands to see the new panda in Chicago.  By the late 40’s more than 6 pandas would enter zoos in the United

States, some as gifts from China and some from Tangier Smith, one from Ruth named Mei Mei.  Maybe then the sweet story of Su Lin started to fade.


By today’s standards the history of Ruth Harkness and the first American Panda was more than a chance to learn about pandas, it is still an amazing feat when any woman thinks of doing what she did.  Walking in her footsteps back into a time when there were no maps, there were no laws protecting animals and people were still discovering the country of China and the awesome Himalayas.  Even now it is something the seasoned hiker would have to be truly weathered for.


Her setbacks were just apart of any triumph, there will be those who want what you have at any cost, and the details of Ruth’s late husbands partner have been debated by some of the most prestigious magazines.  But the only controversy I see is the Shanghi of the story by those who wanted to sell false images, and the change in the way we see hunters, from the hearty brave trophy hunters making a living, to cold hearted killers selling the skins and defeating nature without a fair fight.  In my opinion, Tangier Smith must have been tortured with envy, that a woman with no experience would be able to crush his dream of bringing back the first American panda, and the size must have been the final blow; This was his profession, his bread and butter, he had to claim he was apart of it, or it would ruin his reputation.  Which makes her story so believable, baby animals were no sport to the 19th century hunter, they were weak and lowly to them, not as much meat or skin to sell.  It wasn’t impressive to see a baby animal mounted in a museum or on a wall.  These images conjure up sympathy and pity, besides the fact that a baby would have to be taken care of and it would be, undoubtedly be quite non masculine to do that. 

I would hope to emphasize the good this time, and heal the wounds of the past.  We celebrate many living panda surviving in zoos today and it doesn’t seem all that miraculous.  Images of a bygone era can fade away but the little panda that taught us to love should forever remain in our hearts. 

 Sometimes I believe we have to be the one person fighting for our wishes and dreams even when the world says it cant be done. We can just get more inspired to prove them wrong, and we can choose to remember some good about a time that was much like today, a time of loving and celebrating pandas alive in zoos today.



Panda Wishes is an educational panda and children’s story based in this history, illustrated and filled with cherished photocopy originals.  Love and panda wishes





A note from Ruth
Thanks to the Chicago Brookfield Zoo

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