HARKNESS, RUTH (1900-1947)
Ruth Harkness discovered, captured, and returned to the West with the first giant panda.
In the 1930s, the rush was on to be the first to catch a giant panda, known only from dead specimens and still mysterious. The adventurer and live-animal collector William H. Harkness, fresh from the success of his Komodo dragon exploits, organized a grueling expedition for the New York Zoological Society and Bronx Zoo in search of the giant panda. The Harkness expedition was to go to Tibet and return with the first legendary and elusive specimen. Instead, Harkness was delayed by permit politics and turned back at one point by the unstable situation in Szechwan. In February 1936, Harkness died in Shanghai.
On hearing the news, his widow, Ruth Harkness, socialite, New York clothing designer-turned-adventurer, traveled on a slow boat to China, not arriving until July, and took over the reins of the expedition. Amazingly, her new expedition, after ten fruitless days in the wild, found a live giant panda, a cub kept by a villager. Harkness, with Yang Di Lin and Gerald Russell, returned with the panda, named Su-Lin, to Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo in 1937.
Pandas became the animal for zoos to acquire. Harkness returned for more giant pandas and on her second expedition quickly brought two back—this after decades of frustration by other searchers. Sadly, she never left any records of her second or third expeditions, according to Richard Perry’s The World of the Giant Panda.
Three giant pandas were captured and taken to the United States in the 1930s: Mei Mei, Pandora, and Pan. Pao Pei was the last panda to be captured and exported by a Western nation. By 1945 there were only five giant pandas outside China, most of which had been caught by Ruth Harkness, who would die two years later. In 1953, there were no giant pandas alive in captivity anywhere, even in Tibet and China.
Today, the giant panda is still a highly endangered animal, a popular but rare animal in captivity, and therefore, the logo animal for the World Wildlife Fund. Few know of Ruth Harkness’s role in bringing this animal out of folklore into zoological awareness.
Ruth Harkness’s giant panda expedition still ranks among the bravest and most important cryptozoological efforts of the last hundred years. Her adventures can be read in her two books, The Lady and the Panda and The Baby Giant Panda (both published in 1938).
The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters,Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature
Written by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark – Copyright 1999 Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark