(Soon after putting Hsing-Hsing to sleep yesterday morning, zookeepers found this note hidden in straw in the giant panda's bedding. It was transcribed by Washington Post staff writer Joel Achenbach.)
I know, I know, I was adorable. That was my job. I was a 24-hour adorableness machine. To be adored, to be gawked at, to incite squeals of delight, to be on the receiving end of millions of pointed fingers was a job I took seriously every day of my life. Now that I'm at the end, I want everyone to know it wasn't always easy.
There were days when I didn't want to be adorable, days when the bamboo was soggy, days when I endured all the whispers and gossip about being something less than Rudolph Valentino when it came to the mating game. But I was a professional, I carried on, I found some deep inner strength to continue being cuddly, cute, scrumptious and all those other things that giant pandas are supposed to be. For a large, furry creature, I was--let's face it--a real teddy bear.
I had no confusion about the political and psychological foundation of my situation. In 1972, Richard Nixon made nicey-nice with mainland China, and the big deal went down: The Americans would recognize the communists as the legitimate rulers of the world's most populous nation, and the communists would give the Americans a couple of unusual animals.
All right, I admit it: I worried that someone would get the smart idea to plant a bomb inside me. You know, get everyone in Washington to crowd together to see the cute panda, and then--KABLAM!--there's nothing left of Woodley Park but a crater. We pandas get paranoid sometimes.
The hard part was the breeding, as everyone knows. Did I get to date around? No. In a truly medieval move, my keepers declared that I would mate with my travel partner, Ling-Ling. I'm not going to disrespect her memory, but let's be clear that she really wasn't my type. She wore the fur around her neck in a style that I found, if I may speak bluntly, repulsive. For years I pretended to be confused by the whole process of mating. Those dumb-bunny zookeepers thought I didn't know how to get it on! EARTH TO ZOOKEEPERS: In the animal kingdom, we invented all those night moves.
This may come as a shock, but giant pandas are not designed to breed in captivity. We are native to impenetrable forests. We are aroused by the smell of the dirt, the dense vegetation, the competition with other males. With no other males around, what's the incentive to show your best stuff? Where's the challenge? Giant pandas are romantics. And frankly, I found it hard to get in the mood knowing that just a few minutes later a bunch of 5-year-old kids would be staring at me. The whole thing was just a little bit sick.
Don't think I was a vain creature. Not at all. I knew why I was considered so cute. It's called neoteny. Into maturity, I retained the characteristics, the appearance, of youth. What people loved was how much I resembled a stuffed animal and, more exactly, a baby.
The dark patches around my eyes made them seem bizarrely large, kind of like Barbie's. I had a button nose, stubby limbs. I'd sit on my tush, fondling something with my hands the same way a baby would hold a rattle or Tinker Toys, and I'd radiate sweetness and serenity, and all those folks staring through the fence would enter an instinctive state of maternal or paternal love. They thought they loved me for what I was; I knew they loved Innocence and Vulnerability and Gentleness, and I was merely the conduit to those timeless virtues.
Finally, as I fade away, I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to voice my appreciation for what is surely the filet mignon of the vegetable kingdom: bamboo. My friends, bamboo isn't just a type of "grass." Banish that slander from your minds forever. When I finished eating a giant meal of bamboo, I always had the same desire: Eat more bamboo. My basic plan, day after day, was to eat bamboo until I achieved the state of unconsciousness. I succeeded often. I lived fat and happy.
As you know, my kind are severely endangered. There are hardly any of us left in the wild. If I have a final wish, it is that I do not turn out to be among the last of my species. The world needs all the teddy bears it can get.