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In 1936, Ruth Harkness - a dressmaker from New York -- set off to China in search of the rare, elusive Giant Panda. Her goal? Bring one back alive to share the wonder of China's wildlife with the western world. She became the first explorer to do so, and so set in motion a public fascination with these creatures that continues 80 years later.

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Additional images c/o Ruth Harkness, "The Lady and the Panda," 1938, and the Chicago Zoological Society.

Special thanks to Field staff Gretchen Rings, and Sarah Ebel for their assistance in this video! Also thanks to the Field Museum gift shop staff for letting us borrow the panda for our radio interview.
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Producer, Writer, Creator, Host:
Emily Graslie

Director, Camera, Sound:
Brandon Brungard

Sheheryar Ahsan

This episode is supported by and filmed on location at:
The Field Museum in Chicago, IL

And made possible with help from the Harris Family Foundation.
Today the giant panda is one of the most recognizable animals on the planet.

It graces a logo for an international conservation group, stands in as the unofficial mascot for the entire country of China and even has a chain of restaurants that pay homage to the species in the form of orange chicken entrées. In fact, there may be more of these restaurants than actual pandas left in the wild, but I digress.

It wasn't always this way. At the beginning of the 20th century, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of China who knew anything about these animals. In fact, some of the first to be brought to the United States are these right behind me that were shot by Teddy Roosevelt's sons on an expedition in 1929.

And although these pandas received notable media attention, not least of all because they were shot by a former U. S. president's sons, it really is one woman and one panda who can be credited for a global surge of interest in these elusive, mysterious creatures. Ruth Harkness and the panda, Su Lin.

Ruth was not the typical explorer of her time to say the least. She was a flapper, born in 1900 and moved to New York in her early 20's to pursue a job in the fashion and dress-making industry. She possessed a passion for travel and a longing for adventure and so fell in love with a man, Bill Harkness, who graduated from Harvard and inherited a small personal fortune.

Bill, equally enamored with romantic ideas and an adventurous lifestyle set off to China in 1930 to find a panda of his own, 'cause that's just what you did when you were a young wealthy American man in the 1930's. While the Roosevelts got pretty lucky, things didn't work out so well for Bill. Once arriving in Shanghai, he hired a man named Floyd T.

Smith to help him with the expedition. Smith, a bank teller turned animal collector, had been hired by the Field Museum around that time for what would have been a ten-year survey of vertebrates from western China but he himself quickly grew obsessed with the idea of bringing back a giant panda and that started to get in the way of the job he was initially hired to do, which didn't involve any panda capture. The museum told Smith to forget the whole panda thing but he wouldn't.

After a year and a half of Smith sending back laundry lists of problems and excuses to the Field, they asked him to wrap up in six months. His obsession with finding a panda explains why he was so eager to sway Bill Harkness into letting him lead an expedition for that very purpose. That trip never got off the ground.

Bill died in Shanghai from throat cancer, waiting a year for collecting permits that never came. Word got back to Ruth in New York and instead of hanging out in the States for her husband's ashes, she decided to hop on a boat and collect them herself. On top of that, Ruth, understanding that her husband had already invested a significant amount of money into expedition gear, figured, 'Why don't i just do this for him?' 'It's what he would've wanted!' So she set off to Shanghai, a lone woman with ambition and a small fortune during a time when the rest of the United States suffered debilitating limitations because of the Great Depression, and women were far from being seen as respected explorers.

Ruth arrived in Shanghai in 1936 to a welcome curious reception of Bill's friends. Floyd Smith danced around the periphery, hoping she might hire him on to help, but after going through her deceased husband's correspondence, Ruth became suspicious that Smith was still taking salary from his account and that he was eager to exploit her for even more money. On top of that, she found no evidence that Smith was competent enough to help her carry out the mission.

He had fallen out of good graces with the Field Museum, failed to even set foot in the Chinese wilderness with Bill, and blamed all of this on anyone or anything beside himself. He just wasn't up to the task. So, Ruth turned to a local student, Quentin Young, to handle all of the logistical needs.

And if you ask me, that was a pretty solid choice. Quentin just happened to be the younger brother of Jack Young, who had lead the Roosevelts' expedition. He was imperative to the trip's success and was able to secure resources and routes along a similar trail that Roosevelts had taken in previous years.

It took Ruth, Quentin and a number of local porters about six weeks to get from Shanghai, taking the Yangtze River to an area north-west of Chengdu in the Sichuan province. Today, you could get there by a plane in like three hours, but that was not a luxury that they had going in. The terrain was intense.

And although Ruth had said at one point that she wouldn't walk a city block if she could catch a cab instead, she was a real trooper, substituting her flapper dresses and modifying her husband's hiking trousers for the trek. And they were hiking like 30 or 40 miles a day. Once they were a few days' hike outside of Chengdu, the expedition team set up a base camp and scout camps further out.

They were prepared to live in this bamboo forest for a total of six months or more, long enough to find this incredibly mysterious animal. Almost hilariously, it didn't take that long at all. In fact, it took like a week.

On one of the very first hikes out from base camp, Ruth and Quentin found a three-pound baby panda in the hollow of a tree, which they fed instant formula from a baby bottle. Ruth had accomplished in a handful of days what teams of expeditions with far more experience and money had been attempting for years and she intended to bring it back alive. It's a heck of a lot easier to just bring back a hunted trophy than a live baby panda, which literally nobody in the entire world had ever tried to take care of before.

They named it Su Lin, in honor of the first female Chinese-American explorer. As soon as Ruth got back to Shenghai, the press was knocking at her hotel, but since she hadn't obtained any permits, being neither a scientist nor a collector, there was uncertainty for how she was going to leave the country with Su Lin. After getting escorted off of her first boat and having to jump through some bureaucratic hoops, Ruth boarded the ship President McKinley on December 2, her export papers read "One dog.

Fee: $20." Once Ruth arrived in San Francisco, her name and story were up in lights. She was on the front page of every major newspaper in the country. At the time, tales of triumph and adventure were greatly appreciated and as the U. S. was still suffering the throes of the Great Depression, people clamored to read light-hearted stories about Su Lin living with Ruth in her New York apartment, attending all sorts of parties and press events.

In a telling demonstration for how women explorers were viewed at the time, Ruth Harkness was the first woman to attend the prestigious all-male Explorers Club banquet in New York. But only as a guest of Su Lin. Su Lin was the one interviewed for a live video broadcast, not Ruth.

We're here live with the panda, Su Lin. Su Lin, first thoughts about being in the United States so far? Couldn't have said it better myself.

Back to you. Meanwhile, Floyd Smith was slandering her name in the press, writing articles that contradicted themselves and accusing her of buying Su Lin from a Chinese farmer. It was a rivalry that would follow them through the rest of their lives and even beyond.

Eventually, Su Lin went on to live with the Brookfield Zoo here in Chicago, drawing crowds of tens of thousands of people, but died after only two short years, apparently of pneumonia. Maybe the more shocking thing about the panda's death was how zoologists discovered during the necropsy that Su Lin, long believed to be a female, was in fact male. Which really explains a lot about how it never successfully bred with the second panda Ruth brought back from China a year later, Mei-Mei.

On Ruth's third trip to China, a larger female was captured. But over a period of a few weeks trying to deal with the animal, which was far more unruly than the other two babies she had dealt with, Ruth in a change of heart decided to return it to the wild. By that time, panda fever was heating up for many westerners, including people like Floyd Smith.

And local Chinese, wanting to get in on the money, were helping to capture pandas for exportation. While many made it to zoos, many more were killed in the attempts. Ruth saw this panda gold rush as a negative result of what she had accomplished and understandably felt guilty, since her intention was to introduce the western world to the wonders of China's biodiversity, not to exploit the countryside of its fauna.

And although Ruth is often painted in retellings of the story as a foolish socialite and a party girl, there's much more to her character. While she was indeed a heavy drinker and smoker, she was really forward-thinking about panda conservation, and adamant to demonstrate respect towards China for the opportunities the country had given her. Instead of bringing back the panda as a pelt or in chains, she had brought it back to the United States in her arms.

There's no denying that today the interest in pandas, their conservation and status as a symbol for endangered species is in full force. Compared to other friend and endangered groups, pandas receive a significant amount of money, both financially and publicly. This has somewhat created a crossroads in the public eye.

The unbalanced interest has the tendency for many people and some scientists and economists included to question, well, is it worth it? And the answer to that question really depends on who you ask. For a fun exercise, just google "panda economics." Unfortunately, it's not a bunch of pandas teaching economic classes.

That would be cool. China loans its pandas out to zoos for as much as five hundred thousand to a million dollars per breeding pair. Add in the high cost for food, like 55,000 a year for bamboo, habitat maintenance and breeding programs, and you get a steep fee for the care of these animals in captivity.

But as a result, just having a panda at a zoo can raise incredible amounts of money. In the case of the Memphis Zoo, the pandas brought twenty million dollars one year for the facility and the local economy. That is a lot of extra revenue that could go back to other animal groups and research programs.

And there's a chance that if we can better understand how to successfully breed an animal as difficult as the panda in captivity, then we could do the same for other groups, too. All of this to say, it's nearly 80 years later and the world remains enamored with pandas. The next time you see one in the zoo, remember Ruth and her feat of adventure.

And back here, tucked in the corner of out Mammal Hall, you can even come say hi to Su Lin.