HIS DEATH made the front pages of The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The reports on Hsing-Hsing, the male giant panda resident in this city for 27 years, were dotted with personal pronouns rather than the neutral "it" which our grammar teachers told us is the proper way to speak of animals. Staff and visitors at Washington's National Zoo were red-eyed--and sometimes slightly embarrassed at not being able to conceal it.

This fear that we're being a bit foolish about our animals isn't unusual--at least not among adults. But children have no such inhibitions about their fascination, sympathy and rapport with the creatures they see pacing in the zoo, or sleeping at the foot of their beds at night. Only with adulthood do we seem to develop the sense of apartness that causes us to treat so many animals as a commodity, or a nuisance--in either case as "things" to be killed or driven away.

The great pandas, Hsing-Hsing and his mate, Ling-Ling, who died seven years ago, brought personality to our zoo on a scale none had ever seen before. With their dramatic eyes and markings, their playful feeding and behavior, the pandas captivated the country. But despite some of the most intensive and closely watched mating procedures in Zoo history, none of the cubs survived. Negotiations with China for new pandas are said to be stalled over money right now. If you're looking for a textbook example of how quickly the appropriations process can be unclogged in this country, watch what happens when the children of America get word that it's time to write their congressman about the absence of pandas in the nation's capital.

The standard description of Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing was that they were symbols of the renewal of the relationship between China and the United States. But they were also something else. Animals, wrote Henry Beston, "are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time." In that sense, Washington's pandas were envoys of an older and deeper kind than ministries of foreign affairs can comprehend.