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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.

 0:00 - 2:00

(Into Music)

Today, the giant panda is one of the most recognizable animals on the planet. It graces the 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 its species in the form of orange chicken entrees.

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. Infact, 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 former US 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.

(Intro Music)

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. Smoth to help him with the expedition. Smoth, 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 Smoth 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. (03:23)

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