Maybe we are becoming too fond of animals, or maybe it just looks that way because all feelings are intensified in the Christmas season and losses are unendurable. The expressions of grief and sympathy over the passing of Hsing-Hsing, the panda bear, still pour in to the National Zoo.

It's no wonder. Pandas are an utter delight, with their crazy black-and-white suits, the extravagant black rings around their eyes, their swinging gait. And they are born clowns. Watching Hsing-Hsing's lamented late mate eat her lunch was a delicious experience. She ran those bamboo shoots through her teeth like dental floss, or she held them the way James Galway holds a flute and pawed the leaves in a manner so expressive you half expected to hear a few bars of Mozart. Even taking their naps, they were enthralling, curled up like storybook teddy bears. Ling-Ling's passing in 1992 occasioned many tributes from heartbroken children and editorial writers who praised her charm and professionalism as an entertainer and diplomat. Her mate Hsing-Hsing's death had political overtones. It was, for one thing, a bad omen for the World Trade Organization, which gathered the day he was put to sleep. Some 40,000 people, many of whom thought that the panda pair were the only worthwhile thing to come out of the opening to China, took to the streets of Seattle. There was tear gas and pepper spray and the convention fell apart. The president was mortified.

What he should have done was pick up the phone and call his opposite number in Beijing. "Look, I took a lot of heat to get you into the WTO, and now you've got to help me. I need two pandas and I need them now." He should take no guff about how rare they are and how hard to trap. Jiang Zemin has armies of gumshoes who track down people who argue, get pregnant or even whisper about freedom. The asking price for just leasing a panda duo is a million a year, which is not a problem.

Nobody will argue about the price. Not when it's a question of beguiling beasts. People are passionate even about stuffed animals. We all know 40-year-olds who can't bear to part from Fluffy or Muffy. In Washington, many people are emotional about stone lions. They feel bereft every time they ride over the Taft Bridge on Connecticut Avenue, which was, until 1995, guarded by four majestic lions. When the bridge was repaired, they were carted off to some stonecutter's workshop--to be repaired when the city's flat purse was replenished. They haven't been heard from since.

Our mayor, Tony Williams, during his new-broom campaign swore he understood that life without the lions was not the same and promised faithfully he would have them back on the job as soon as possible. But it's been 18 months since the bridge was fixed and the District is wallowing in a surplus, and Cleveland Park remains lionless.

It should be no surprise that the District of Columbia lost four lions. The District is notorious for its inability to keep track of people it's supposed to be looking after. In 1991, we were told that under the misrule of Williams's unlamented predecessor, Marion Barry, the so-called Department of Human Services had lost touch with hundreds of foster children for whom it was responsible. We were assured that it was all going to be different under Williams; but now we're not so sure.

We've just had a devastating new chapter added to a history of incompetence and callousness. The Post's Katherine Boo, a small blond hurricane of a reporter, wrote a story in Sunday's paper about the abuse and neglect of retarded citizens. She dug up evidence--in graveyards, Social Security records and hospital logs--of 116 uninvestigated deaths, many unreported, many avoidable. It was a saga of indifference and cruelty, of hasty cremations and shredded documents, of huge profits for the private operators and massive inaction by the responsible city officials.

Last March, Katherine Boo called the mayor's attention to the hellish conditions in those facilities and he pledged to clean them up. It's still to be done. The retarded are a voiceless constituency; their relatives hardly ever go to see them, and appear only when a monster scandal breaks, and there are lawsuits to be filed.

Hubert Humphrey used to say that a country will be judged by its treatment of the least of its brethren. We may not always look good when it comes to the way we take care of those it may be hard to love, the retarded and the homeless. But we're often devoted to animals. We won't let Hsing-Hsing go. He will be stuffed at the Smithsonian so all can see how we much we prize beguiling beasts.