November 9, 1936: Ruth Harkness Became the First Person to Capture a Giant Panda and Bring It Back to the United States Alive

Photo: Lotte Jacobi

On November 9, 1936, Ruth Harkness became the first person to capture a giant panda, Su Lin, and bring it back to the United States alive. Harkness would return to China a year later and bring back one more panda, Mei Mei, to the United States. Even though she died 70 years ago, her legacy endures as pandas are one of the most celebrated endangered species on the planet.

Although Harkness gained fame for her panda discovery, her wealthy husband, Bill, was the original adventurer in the relationship. Already famous for bringing several rare Komodo dragons to the Bronx Zoo, he tragically died on his own panda-hunting mission in China. After inheriting her late husband’s estate, Harkness decided to carry on his mission. Known as a chain-smoking and hard-drinking socialite and dress designer, she was one of the most unlikely people to embark on such a rugged journey.

At 35 years old she arrived in Shanghai, China and joined up with a 22-year-old Chinese-American naturalist Quentin Young and his team of experts to find her bear. On their two-month trek by river and foot to the bamboo forests of Chengdu, aka “panda land,” Harkness and Young had a love affair. Then, on November 9, 1936, Harkness finally found her prized panda. Although Young was hoping to capture an adult bear, Harkness gleefully plucked the baby panda from a tree, cradled it in her arms and nursed it with a baby bottle. She named it Su Lin and after facing some problems at customs in China, Harkness successfully arrived in New York City with her pet panda.

The media went wild over the first living giant panda to arrive in the West. The panda lived with Harkness in her New York City apartment for several months until she sold it to Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo for $14,000. It became the zoo’s star attraction, but tragically died of pneumonia 16 months after arriving in the United States. However, Harkness made a return trip to China a year later and brought back another giant panda, Mei Mei, who also lived in the Chicago zoo until dying in 1942.

Unfortunately, Harkness also died too soon at 46 years old from alcoholism. However, her bravery and love for pandas endures today. Pandas are the most iconic symbol of our need to conserve rare species and their habitats. Additionally, one of the best anecdotes for getting through a rough day is watching an adorable panda video.

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