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  Ling-Ling Dies Suddenly

By D'Vera Cohn and Brooke A. Masters
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 31, 1992; Page A1

Ling-Ling, the female half of the National Zoo's fuzzy and beloved pair of rare giant pandas, died suddenly yesterday of unknown causes. She was 23, the oldest of her kind living in captivity outside China.

A keeper who went to fetch her for the 3 p.m. feeding discovered Ling-Ling's body in the outdoor yard of the panda compound, the zoo's most-visited attraction. Zoo spokesman Mike Morgan said she apparently had collapsed suddenly, because the dirt where she lay was undisturbed.

Hsing-Hsing, her mate in a long-running saga of failed attempts to produce a surviving cub, was in a separate enclosure at the time. Zoo officials said they do not expect him to grieve because pandas are naturally solitary animals. They do not plan to alter his routine, including 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. feedings.

The black and white animals became the toast of Washington when they arrived at the zoo in 1972, one of the first fruits of President Nixon's peacemaking visit to China. Eight thousand people stood in the rain for a half-hour or longer to watch the pandas when they first went on display, and an estimated 3 million people a year come to see them.

"They didn't do a lot, but {we liked} just to be able to look at them and know they were so rare," said Julia Levinson, of Springfield, who was at the zoo yesterday with her 4-year-old daughter, Katie. "There are going to be a lot of unhappy people when they read the paper."

The news did not take everybody by surprise. Bill Fanelli, of Silver Spring, who visited the zoo yesterday with his family, said a zoo volunteer told him recently, "If you want to see them, get in soon, because they're getting old."

Ling-Ling was considered an elderly panda, but had no recent health problems, Morgan said. Zoo pathologists were performing an autopsy, but results may not be available for several days if laboratory tests on tissue are needed.

No commemoration is planned, but the zoo probably will display cards -- no flowers, please -- in the panda compound, Morgan said.

Ling-Ling, whose name means "darling little girl" in Chinese, weighed 240 pounds and measured slightly less than six feet from head to toe. She quickly was dubbed the extroverted half of the panda pair, which had never met until they arrived -- under armed guard -- as a gift from the people of China.

After the opening ceremony at the zoo, attended by First Lady Pat Nixon, Ling-Ling charmed visitors by batting her paws, rolling over and jumping up and down on her log pile. Zoologists described her as "the rough-and-ready type."

Ling-Ling was five times a mother, but none of her offspring survived more than a few days.

The annual wait for her to produce a cub became something of a Washington ritual: first the measurement of hormone levels, then exultation, then disappointment. All was chronicled by cameras and watched around the clock by scores of volunteers brought in at the first sign of possible pregnancy.

Zoo officials first attempted to mate the pair in 1976, then tried artificial insemination and finally imported a male panda from London to do what Hsing-Hsing apparently could not. But Ling-Ling's encounter with the English outsider degenerated into a fight, and the project was abandoned.

After a rocky courtship in which he seemed inept and she seemed indifferent, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing began mating in 1983. Ling-Ling had not given birth since 1989 and did not go into heat this year. Increasingly in her later years, she frolicked less and slept more.

Ling-Ling's last complete medical checkup was in 1989, a procedure not repeated since then because it requires anesthesia that can be dangerous to elderly animals, Morgan said. Her urine was tested daily for infection, and she had regular visits from a veterinarian, he said.

"It was a complete surprise," he said. "She had been active and eating well.

"Our most important thing is to determine the cause of death. If it's something we did wrong, we want to know."

Ling-Ling had a brush with death in 1983 when she developed a severe kidney infection and anemia. She was treated successfully with antibiotics.

Scientists at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History would like to study Ling-Ling's body parts for a research project, but zoo officials have not decided what to do with her body, Morgan said.

Giant pandas are an endangered species: There are believed to be only about 1,000 pandas in the wild and about 95 in zoos. In the wild, they rarely live beyond their teens, zoo officials said, but reportedly have lived into their twenties in Chinese zoos.

Before the arrival of Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, it had been nearly two decades since a U.S. zoo had a panda.

As for a new mate for Hsing-Hsing, who is a year younger than Ling-Ling, "we would love to have pandas here," Morgan said. "We don't know what will happen. . . . It's not the sort of thing one asks the Chinese government for."

© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company

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