The Long-Running Panda Show
By D'Vera Cohn
The diplomatic cargo, accompanied by armed guards, arrived at the National Zoo on a breezy April day 25 years ago. As U.S. and Chinese officials looked on, two black-and-white giant panda cubs emerged from their green lacquered crates, and Washington fell instantly in love.
Soon Ling-Ling, the female, and Hsing-Hsing, the male, were luring thousands of visitors a day to the zoo and causing traffic jams on Connecticut Avenue. Enraptured fans waited in line to see the panda pair, brought them fresh bamboo from their back yards and took home stuffed panda toys as keepsakes. They followed the pandas' initial rocky courtship like a favorite soap opera, sighed each spring when they finally began to mate, rejoiced at the birth of each cub -- and mourned as they died.
So it will be a bittersweet occasion next week when the zoo observes the 25th anniversary of the April 16, 1972, arrival of its celebrated panda couple -- a gift from China after President Richard M. Nixon's breakthrough visit there. Ling-Ling died in 1992, and her elderly mate, Hsing-Hsing, has cancer. The two never produced a surviving cub to help increase the dwindling, endangered giant panda population. And the zoo's prospects for getting another panda are uncertain.
Still, there are reasons to celebrate. Three million people a year visit Hsing-Hsing, according to zoo officials, who call him the most famous zoo animal in the world and the National Zoo's most popular attraction. Zoo scientists gained insights about panda behavior, and the volunteers who faithfully monitored the pandas over the years became a model for research on other animals, including endangered cheetahs.
Hsing-Hsing (pronounced Shing-Shing; the name means "shining star") weighed 74 pounds when he arrived at the zoo and was thought then to be 6 months old. Ling-Ling (Chinese for "darling little girl") weighed 136 and was thought to be a year older. Few expected the furry bears to outlast not just Nixon (who never came to visit them), but also Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush.
"At that time, the oldest one in China was . . . 20 years old," recalled Theodore Reed, the zoo's director in 1972, who is now retired and living in Delaware. "I hoped we would get to a respectable age. I didn't know they would live this long."
Zoo employees speak sadly about the future without a panda. Hsing-Hsing is near the end of a normal life span and is scheduled for cancer surgery on his right testicle on April 23. Veterinarians hope they can contain the disease, but they have no cancer research on pandas to rely on, only research on dogs and other bears.
Hsing-Hsing also has arthritis in his back and left elbow. Zoo officials began feeding him an anti-inflammatory drug this month, mixing it with cooked sweet potato. But even without the problems of old age, pandas are not active animals. Zoo keepers say the best times to visit are 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when they feed him "panda gruel" and sheaves of bamboo in his outdoor yard. (The Panda House is closed because of zoo construction, but the outdoor area is open.)
The zoo's anniversary celebration will be held at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. There will be a symposium on pandas at 7 that night and a weekend of events April 19 and 20.
At a feeding this week, Hsing-Hsing opened his mouth as keeper Brenda Morgan slipped him a fat raw carrot through the chain-link barrier in his yard. He grasped it in his left paw and bit off a hunk, wriggling his ears as he chewed.
"That's a good boy," Morgan cooed. "That's very good."
His clawed black foot jutted under the fence, close enough to touch. He knows Morgan's voice, and there is trust between them. But she would never go into the 240-pound animal's yard -- it's too dangerous.
Giant pandas look like teddy bears, but Ling-Ling once mauled a keeper who went into her cage.
"He's a very nice animal," said Lisa M. Stevens, the zoo's assistant curator of mammals and chief supervisor of its sole giant panda. "[But] Ling-Ling would reach under here [with her claw] and get you."
First impressions mislead in other ways. Soon after their arrival, Hsing-Hsing was described as shy and Ling-Ling as sociable. It turned out she was aloof and he was more people-oriented.
And his initial reputation as a bumbling lover also turned out to be a bum rap.
The pandas' sex lives were the talk of the town from Day One. They needed to produce an heir.
Giant pandas are among the world's rarest animals, with fewer than 1,000 living in China's shrinking bamboo forests and 100 or so in zoos. An international campaign to preserve the species periodically stalls because of friction between China and other countries.
The pair's first mating attempts, in the mid-1970s, resembled comic opera. Hsing-Hsing, it seemed, needed an anatomy lesson. Ling-Ling's ear flap, her wrist and her right foot all were mistaken targets of his mating attempts.
"Ling-Ling tolerated this for a while under the optimistic impression that it could be classified as foreplay," The Washington Post's Judith Martin reported in 1977, before she became the etiquette columnist Miss Manners. "She then did what any normal, healthy woman would do -- she hauled off and swatted him one."
Exasperated, zoo officials brought in a male panda from London as a substitute stud. But he attacked Ling-Ling instead of mating with her. They tried hormones next, then artificial insemination.
Finally, in 1983, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling mated for the first time. A male cub was born, the first in the United States, but it died in three hours. Ling-Ling contracted a kidney infection a few months later and would have died but for antibiotics and a blood transfusion from her mate.
From then on, it was a yearly soap opera, observed during mating season by round-the-clock volunteers and zoo employees. The Act. The Wait -- panda gestation lasts three to five months, and there is no reliable pregnancy test. Then the births, all heartbreaking.
Ling-Ling had a stillborn male cub in 1984, twins (a male and a female) in 1987 and a male cub in 1989. All died, though one of the twin cubs lived for four days.
Each time, there was a different cause of death. Pneumonia. Ling-Ling's chronic uterine infection, which infected the cub as it was born. Problems with her milk. Common bacteria in the environment. Zoo officials learned from each, but it was not the right lesson to solve the next problem.
Breeding efforts were further hampered because a female giant panda is in heat for only two to three days during the February through May breeding season. Births could take place any time from July to October, so nobody involved with the pandas -- keepers, veterinarians, volunteers, even the zoo photographer -- could take vacation then.
"We had no life," said Devra G. Kleiman, the zoo's assistant research director and panda reproductive specialist.
The pair kept mating through 1992, but no more cubs were born.
Stevens and Kleiman now regret that they, on the advice of the Chinese, kept the pandas fenced off from each other for most of their time at the zoo.
"We really had incorrect information about the best way to breed pandas -- and, mind you, success in breeding pandas even now is terrible," Kleiman said.
The fence is down now, but Hsing-Hsing is alone. After Ling-Ling died of age-related heart failure, he bleated for her for a month, Stevens said. Then her scent faded, and he stopped calling.
"It's hard to be upbeat," Stevens said. "This is his fifth breeding season without a female."
Zoo veterinarians extracted semen from Hsing-Hsing several times, before and after Ling-Ling's death, and sent it to the zoos in Mexico City and Tokyo. But artificial insemination is rarely successful, and no cubs were born.
National Zoo officials thought about lending him to another zoo with a female but decided that travel was too risky at his advanced age. And no other zoo wanted to lend them a female. Now, zoo veterinarians say, Hsing-Hsing is past prime breeding age.
"The decision we made was best for Hsing-Hsing as an individual," Stevens said. "Maybe it wasn't the best for the [panda] population. There's always a bit of tension. . . . I think we made the right decision."
Hsing-Hsing's eventual death probably will have some impact on zoo attendance. "But I think that the National Zoo has many, many other exciting animals and programs," said zoo spokesman Robert Hoage. "We'll still have very significant attendance, but Hsing will be missed."
Kleiman and Stevens say they learned a lot about panda behavior and reproductive habits. They want a chance to try again and wonder whether housing several males near a female would inspire competition that could increase the odds of a successful birth.
The possibility of getting another panda, or two, seems remote, however. Officially, the nation's zoos are collaborating on a plan to breed pandas in the United States as a hedge against their extinction in the wild. But money seems to decide these days which zoos get pandas.
In 1972, the National Zoo got pandas because it was the traditional repository of diplomatic gifts. Last year, the San Diego Zoo received a pair of pandas on a long-term loan after agreeing to pay the Chinese government $1 million a year, plus a percentage of souvenir sales. Both Kleiman and Stevens have visited San Diego and passed along advice to officials there.
The National Zoo does not charge admission and is funded by a federal appropriation and money raised by Friends of the National Zoo. The privately run San Diego Zoo charges $15 admission for adults and $6 for children. It has insured its pandas for $1.5 million.
"We can't come up with a million dollars a year," Kleiman said. "And I wouldn't want to, because I think it's wrong. It's wrong that pandas will go to zoos that have the money and not necessarily zoos that have the expertise and/or experience."
Kleiman now gives her time to a more successful animal breeding program, restoring golden lion tamarins in South America. But the pandas had a lasting impact: She is taking classes in conflict resolution, hoping to use her skills to bridge international differences that prevent success in saving endangered species of all kinds.
Meanwhile, the hopeful panda fans continue to visit the National Zoo. Among them are students from a middle school in a Richmond suburb, where a "panda team" of sixth-graders studies the animal and collects pennies from home for a donation. Each year since 1992, the school has sent three busloads of sixth-graders and given a donation of about $200 to the zoo.
The students are scheduled to visit next month. Mamie Alexander, the sixth-grade team leader at Bailey Bridge Middle School in Midlothian, says she can't yet bring herself to tell the students that Hsing-Hsing is ill.
"I'm just real concerned," she said. "I hope that things are all right."
But there is some good news. Thanks to the anti-inflammatory drug he started taking this month, Hsing-Hsing is feeling better. As he trundled out to meet his public for an 11 a.m. feeding this week, his limp was gone and his appetite was back. He plopped himself under a tree, dragged over a stalk of bamboo and began chewing briskly.
"Isn't it amazing?" keeper Morgan said. "He's a new panda."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company