Taking an early morning jog through the National Zoo yesterday, Gary Skomro had his eye out for that panda.
It was only 8:45 a.m., a good time to see animals in their outdoor enclosures. But Skomro, who lives near Boston and was visiting friends in town, didn't see Hsing-Hsing outside. It was his first time jogging in the zoo, and he decided to look for him in the Panda House. He paused, running in place, to read the outdoor display describing the bamboo diets of giant pandas. Then, at the door, he saw the sign:
"We regret to inform you that Hsing-Hsing died this morning, Sunday, Nov. 28, 1999."
"I ran up here hoping [the Panda House] might be open," Skomro, 47, said as he walked away. "I really wanted to come by to see him. I can imagine how attached the people of Washington must have been to Hsing."
Attached isn't the word. At the zoo, Hsing-Hsing's home for 27 years, many visitors young and old were heartsick to learn that the ailing panda had, as one zoo aide put it, "passed away."
To lessen the shock, the zoo briefly stationed people on the walkway leading to the Panda House so they could warn parents before they took their children up to the exhibit. Where once the public had cooed and giggled as they watched Hsing-Hsing and his mate, Ling-Ling, frolic on exercise equipment, now the collective reaction was a mournful "Ah."
Ann Unitas, 41, of Arlington, couldn't help crying as she stood before Hsing-Hsing's glass enclosure, its front covered in get-well cards and children's drawings.
"I'm embarrassed," she said, as her two children, Bradley, 8, and Sammy, 2, wandered about the indoor exhibit, looking at photos. "I didn't think I'd react this way."
Unitas, who has followed Washington's pandas from their arrival through their mating efforts and female Ling-Ling's death, called them a national landmark.
"Everyone comes to the zoo to see them," she said. "I bring visitors to the zoo, and that's all they ever want to see."
Since Carol and Ron Clark live in the neighborhood, they take regular walks through the zoo. They, too, saw the sign at the Panda House and sat down on a bench in front of the exhibit's outdoor yard to commiserate.
"I was here last week, and I didn't think that he looked very well," said Carol Clark, 53, a teacher. "I sort of had this premonition that he wouldn't last much longer."
She said as much to her husband, and he made sure to visit the zoo with her yesterday.
"I came to see it one last time, but I was too late," said Ron Clark, 57, a lawyer. "I thought it was sad when they took the barrier down when Ling-Ling died. This is sadness upon sadness."
Ed and Deb Hansch, from Bridgewater, N.J., were in town for the holiday weekend. They have visited Washington several times, and they always come to the zoo with their children, Karen and Greg.
"It's one of our favorite spots in Washington, and our very favorite zoo," Ed Hansch said. But they had never been able to see the pandas.
"The lines were always too long on our other visits," he said.
Valentina Urribarri, 58, comes to Washington from Venezuela every year to see family and never misses a chance to go to the zoo.
"I love this zoo," she said. She was upset not to be able to see Hsing-Hsing. "I love him because he was so tender, something you want to embrace--from a distance."
She wanted to know how the panda died. Then she wanted to know something else.
"Are you going to get another one?"