Thursday, March 18, 2010

Vicki Croke "The Lady And The Panda"

Ruth Harkness and Su-Lin

Being cute blows. Pandas know this. They might be predators who weigh up to 150kg and can cause some serious pain when annoyed (“A man has been attacked by a panda at a park in southern China, after he climbed into its enclosure hoping to cuddle the creature.”“Teenager Hospitalized After Panda Attack at Chinese Zoo”“Giant panda in China bites third victim”) but somehow it never quite registered with humans “I always thought they were cute and just ate bamboo” said victim of third attack. Well, now.

See, pandas decided to go veggie somewhere along their evolutionary path. Because the mainstay of their diet, bamboo, provides so little energy, they are forced to spend much of their time munching just to keep the sugar levels up. When they move it’s mostly slowly. But apparently, some part of their brains and bodies still know they are bears.

To humans though, they are first plush toys and second cute animals. Few other wild animals have been the source of such prolonged infatuation (dolphins come to mind, and by the way they can get mean too). Scientists point to the big round faces, roly-poly bodies, the appearance of big eyes caused by the black spots, and the fact that pandas sit in an almost human manner to eat and feed their young as irresistible to our species. They are soft, fluffy and their color looks artificial and modern, dreamed up by an avant-garde toy inventor, certainly not threatening like leopard spots or tiger stripes.
Ever since a panda pelt was brought to the west by a French missionary in 1869, we have been panda-crazy. Curiously enough the sons of American President Theodore Roosevelt (whose ordering of a “mercy” killing of a wounded bear inspired first a political cartoon and then the birth of the modern toy, the teddy bear) Theo Jr and Kermit were the first westerners to shoot a panda (Alanis me this).

Vicki Croke’s “The Lady And The Panda” certainly provides food for thought but is primarily the story of Ruth Harkness (whose account of her panda adventure was published under the same name in 1938. Married to adventurer and heir (as adventurers are advised to be) Bill Harkness, Ruth enjoyed the sort of “Thin Man” movies Manhattan night style: a dress designer that could down martinis and scotch with the best of them while husband sailed the world in search of natural treasures.

After being gone for two years on an expedition to bring pandas back to the west (an expedition that never left Shanghai) Bill Harkness died of cancer in China. Ruth was distraught but undaunted: after all she had always dreamed of accompanying Bill in his expeditions but had always been discouraged by his male associates. She would go to China and bring back a live panda to the United States.

It helped that her home-base in China, Shanghai, was in the early thirties even more cosmopolitan than New York. People from all nationalities crossed their paths in the city: there was sophistication and jazz in the luxury western hotels and exoticism in the Chinese side. Harkness soon fell in love with Chinese people and their culture, while developing a healthy disdain for westerners ill-concealed racism.

Being a charming young woman helped her circumvent the bureaucratic pits which had detained her husband. But Harkness was more than an elegant creature – she had a knack for assessing character and soon was convinced that Bill’s associate Floyd Smith was an incompetent moocher, and sent him packing, inadvertently setting in motion a lifetime of hatred and jealousy (on account of which not a few pandas died untimely deaths at Smith’s hands).

Against all odds Harkness kept the pace, travelling to inner China, near the border of Tibet, trekking in arduous terrain and sleeping in an abandoned lamasery. A fantastic intuition told her to pack a baby bottle with her expedition material and soon enough a baby panda just about fell into her lap. Harkness felt blessed and treated little Su-Lin with a mother’s attention: always carrying her around, trying different foods. She couldn’t help but feel, despite all the discomfort she surely endured that this was a magical land, for she loved the landscape, the people, the baby panda and her expedition organizer, a young and handsome Chinese-American named Quentin Young.

After much bureaucratic wrangling, Harkness arrived in the United States with Su-Lin and received a hero’s welcome. Harkness and baby were the celebrities of the day. After negotiations with the Bronx Zoo stalled, it was Chicago’s Brookfield who won the honor (and the long waiting lines) of first presenting a live panda to the American audiences (and here is the origin of the phenomena which still, today, leads American Zoos into leasing pandas for astronomical amounts from the Chinese government).

Harkness wanted twenty thousand dollars to immediately launch a new campaign into the Chinese interior, and bring back a male panda (although a male panda is what she had brought unbeknownst to her and zoo staff). Although the zoo gave her less for her troubles, it was still an astronomical amount for that period, and instigated a few other expeditions including Floyd Smith’s.

But from here on it was mostly downhill for Harkness – she tried to recapture the happiness of that first expedition but personal and world events seem to conspire against her. Young was now married and things were awkward between them to say the least. A male panda was captured and Harkness, used to baby Su-Lin (who was still able to scratch and bite quite forcefully) was shocked at the wildness of this panda.

The male panda actually died from illness or internal injuries caused by his capture. Harkness and the press would never mention him again. They didn’t need to. In a last stroke of luck she came about a new baby panda (also a male that, like Su-Lin would be erroneously labeled a female). Harkness managed to get out of China just as the Japanese invasion was getting started.

Harkness with Su-Lin and Mei-Mei

Her third and last expedition into China would find Harkness braving a war torn country and going into the terrain with only Chang, her cook of previous journeys at her side. She would also do something unprecedented for an explorer, certainly a male one: she would double back into the wild, to release the female panda her hunters had captured.

By this time Harkness was well aware of the panda persecution and killing going on, mostly by, or at the instigation of, westerners eager to get their hands on this most valuable of trophies. This last panda was reckless, forever wanting to scale walls, trees and generally get into trouble. Harkness saw in the animal a desire for her predestined life, her wild life.

Ruth Harkness would never go back to China, although she would try for quite some time. But by then World War II was in progress. She fell deeper and deeper into alcoholism, drinking herself to sleep most nights. What was she seeking oblivion from? From constantly missing her husband? China? Unrequited love for Young? From the panda eyes behind Zoo bars or the ones that had died in her care (a second one had to be shot after going berserk in captivity, still in China)? Maybe all of it.

The dress designer turned explorer who had travelled to some of the more inhospitable regions on earth, endured conditions most men could not and returned home with the catch of the century, was unable to keep herself financially afloat, or sober. She dallied in this and that, travelled to South America, wrote for Gourmet Magazine.

In 1947 she was found dead in a hotel room in Pittsburgh.

Today, four American, three European, one Mexican and one Australian zoos have pandas. The rest are in China and Asian neighboring countries. They are incredibly expensive to lease and their conservation in the wild is proving to be multi-billion dollar endeavor. Last year a British naturalist led to some conservationists into hysterics when he suggested funds ought to be reassigned from panda conservation to habitat conservation (Americans, with their need to cause trouble came up with the headline “Wild Life Expert Says Let the Pandas Die” – yikes…). In fact his article published in the Guardian makes a lot of valid points:

“Extinction is very much a part of life on earth. And we are going to have to get used to it in the next few years because climate change is going to result in all sorts of disappearances. The last large mammal extinction was another animal in China – the Yangtze river dolphin, which looked like a worn-out piece of pink soap with piggy eyes and was never going to make it on to anyone's T-shirt. If that had appeared beautiful to us, then I doubt very much that it would be extinct. But it vanished, because it was pig-ugly and swam around in a river where no one saw it. And now, sadly, it has gone for ever.”

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