Nearly two weeks after Hsing-Hsing's death, his keepers still report each day to the National Zoo's Panda House. Sympathy cards must be taped up for display. Dried flowers must be removed as fresh bouquets arrive. Working with other people's grief helps them deal with their own.
They were as close to the creature they called Hsing as anyone could get to a wild animal in a zoo. They knew that he enjoyed having dried cherries pushed between his teeth because he could not pick them up himself and that he sometimes liked them to pull his ears. They watched sadly as his health declined and agreed to end his life when he was suffering so much he was no longer the giant panda they knew.
Hsing-Hsing was euthanized Nov. 28 because of worsening kidney disease, which had been diagnosed in May. The next day, the National Museum of Natural History, which had been given the panda's skin and skeleton, announced it would put the preserved panda on display early next year in its rotunda.
At the zoo, the announcement seemed rushed and coarse. "Disrespectful to his memory, and insensitive," said keeper Laurie Perry. "I never will go in there."
Associate zoo curator Lisa M. Stevens, who supervises the panda keepers, quoted approvingly from an e-mail sent in by a grieving panda lover: "What's next? Are we going to stuff our presidents and put them on exhibit?"
The keepers said the museum's idea was the same as having a beloved pet stuffed. They also worried that the exhibit would do little to educate people about the need to conserve panda habitat in the wild. The scientists, they complained, were handling Hsing-Hsing like a dinosaur fossil, not acknowledging an emotional connection.
Some zoo officials protested to zoo director Michael Robinson. He voiced their concerns to museum director Robert Fri, and the museum quickly backtracked. Spokesman Randall Kremer said it was "unfortunate" that the zoo was upset, adding that some of the difficulty stemmed from the understandably different perspectives of scientists and keepers. In any case, now Hsing won't be put on display until at least 2001, and then only as part of an environmental exhibit.
"He's a thing to them," said keeper Dianne Murnane, "and he was something special to us."
Hsing-Hsing and his mate, Ling-Ling, came to Washington in 1972--a gift from the Chinese government--and instantly became the zoo's most popular attraction. The pair mated and had five cubs, but none survived more than a few days. Ling-Ling died of heart failure in 1992, and the aging male became the lone giant panda in the nation's capital.
To children, Hsing-Hsing was a warm fuzzy creature they delighted in visiting. To adults, he was cute, rare--and slept too much. To his keepers, he was a sweet charge, with individual personality traits that made him seem like a pet--but with a fence between them at all times.
The panda's three keepers and Stevens all own animals, a total of nine dogs, five cats, two horses, two snakes and several birds. They appreciate the sympathy cards from people who recounted their own agonizing decisions to put down dogs or cats.
"I don't differentiate between my dogs and animals at the zoo," Stevens said. "The parameters are different because they are wild animals, but the types of things you worry about are exactly the same."
The obvious grief of Hsing's keepers reflects a change in zoo practices from a generation ago. Then, animals were fed, watered--and disposed of when they fell ill. Animal keeping was more of a janitorial job. But growing social concern about the treatment of animals, as well as laws protecting rare and endangered species, helped emphasize the need for more tender care.
"I just want to say that all of us keepers felt honored to work with such an amazing animal," said Perry, 28, whose five years of experience make her the junior of the group. "I was thrilled to go to work every day."
Six months ago, though, the 28-year-old giant panda was diagnosed with terminal kidney disease. Hsing-Hsing was once so predictable that "you could set your watch by him," as keeper Brenda Morgan put it. But soon, the elderly animal didn't eat on schedule or sleep where he used to sleep.
His keepers worried over each behavior change. Did he sleep late because he was sick, or was he just sleeping late? Did he not want to go outside because of illness, or another reason? They devised tricks to get him to take medication, stuffing pills inside his favorite blueberry muffin and luring him to the fence with dried cherries so they could spritz him with eye drops.
"You had good days and bad days, based on whether he had a good day or a bad day," said Stevens, 44, who cared for the pandas for 13 years.
Then, inevitably, came the worst day.
The sympathy cards pour into the zoo, sometimes more than three dozen a day. One came from keepers at the Atlanta zoo, which recently received two young pandas on loan from China. Many are hand-lettered notes from children--"I love you Panda bear," wrote one. "I wish you didn't die." There have been hundreds of e-mails, many expressing sympathy directly to the keepers.
A half-dozen bouquets--tulips, roses, iris, bamboo branches--are scattered in front of the glass window of Hsing's enclosure, and more are piled at the foot of a panda statue along the entryway.
"A lot of people have been touched, even more than I thought they would be," said Morgan, 46, the senior keeper, who has more than eight years of experience. Morgan's mother died the week before the panda, and there is no place she can go to get away from grief. Home reminds her of her mother; work reminds her of the panda.
"I look at the cards every day," said Murnane, 47, a keeper for seven years, "and it gets a little easier."
Murnane wrote a poem to express her sorrow about the panda. It begins: "I wasn't supposed to love you so much/With your quiet approach and your soft, gentle touch."
The panda keepers have other job assignments that keep them busy. They also help staff the gorilla quarters and the camel exhibit, among other duties.
Zoo officials are negotiating with China in hopes of getting more pandas but cannot pay the $8 million over 10 years for conservation projects that China has asked. "It would be nice for them to say, 'Here, we'd like to give you some more' " pandas, Murnane said, acknowledging that this is probably naive.
"I'm grateful that I was part of his life, and that I knew him as an individual, not just as a giant panda," Morgan said. "I miss him so much."
CAPTION: Former panda keepers Laurie Perry, left, Lisa M. Stevens and Dianne Murnane stand before a statue of Hsing-Hsing outside the Panda House at the National Zoo.