ON THE SEPTEMBER DAY HURRICANE Floyd skirted Washington and closed schools for the day, my eight-year-old daughter, Sara, and I visited Hsing-Hsing for the last time.
A sign at the entrance to the Panda House at the National Zoo said that Hsing-Hsing was feeling better, but his labored gait, spotty coat, and gaunt appearance were a shock. He was blind. A zookeeper said the panda's weight had dropped from 300 pounds to 245. He did not look like a giant panda at all. As he moved among the three rooms of the Panda House, he looked no larger than a collie.
A lot had happened since April 1972, when 74-pound Hsing-Hsing and his mate, Ling-Ling, arrived in Washington, symbols of rapprochement–a gift intended to show that the United States and China were not destined to blow each other to smithereens. A year younger than the rambunctious Ling-Ling, gentle, lovable Hsing-Hsing quickly became the favorite of the keepers.
On the first Sunday the pandas were displayed to the public, 75,000 people came, halting traffic on Connecticut Avenue. The crowds never stopped. Panda faces appeared on T-shirts, mugs, pins, pencils, pennants, and posters. Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling accounted for about half the revenue from goods sold in the zoo shops.
UNTIL THE ARRIVAL OF THE PANDAS, THE NATIONAL Zoo was not a top-tier zoo–or even a must-see on a trip to Washington. But after the pandas came, most tourists didn't consider a Washington visit complete without a trip to the Panda House. Soon Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were the city's most beloved residents and the most famous zoo animals in the world.
Their attempts to mate became an annual drama. But every attempt ended in failure or tragedy. Hsing-Hsing was ridiculed. His supposed inadequacy became the subject of jokes on late-night TV. The New York Times called him a wimp. The supreme indignity came when zoo officials imported a panda named Chia-Chia from London to mate with Ling-Ling. The "London Lothario," as he was dubbed, mauled DC's panda princess. Hsing-Hsing wasn't happy. He began tearing down the fence of the temporary quarters to which he had been exiled.
Things changed after that. Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling began to mate on almost an annual basis starting in 1983. But all five of Ling-Ling's cubs, including one set of twins, died shortly after birth.
In 1992, while Hsing-Hsing slept on his platform of Douglas fir, Ling-Ling rolled off her perch and dropped dead of a heart attack. For three days, Hsing-Hsing would peer into Ling-Ling's empty enclosure after he awoke.
Hsing-Hsing was old for a panda, but he had not lost his ability to delight the crowds that came to see him. Every morning he would sit on the crest of his hill, staring out at the children as he ate his bamboo and munched his apples.
But the panda who had been laughed at by newspapers and TV comedians didn't get much respect from the top zoo officials, either. Zoo director Michael Robinson resented the zoo's identification with the panda. He wanted the "biopark"–he didn't believe in "zoos"–to represent more amorphous themes, such as the interaction of plants and animals.
Privately, Robinson began talking not of replacing the pandas but of what other use the Panda House could be put to once Hsing-Hsing was dead. While other zoos–notably those in San Diego and Atlanta–developed plans to bring pandas to their cities, Robinson launched no such effort. And while the National Zoo by law cannot charge admission–which might have paid for new pandas–Robinson refused to request a new pair as a state gift or to ask Congress for funds to obtain pandas from China. Robinson wanted to spend money on other things such as the Invertebrate Exhibit, which displays Madagascar spiders and sea anemones, and the $5-million Amazonia building, which is full of tropical plants.
Hsing-Hsing held on. Six years after Ling-Ling's death, Hsing-Hsing had become the oldest panda ever in captivity. He would never give Michael Robinson the opportunity to take his house. In November, Robinson announced his resignation as director of the "biopark." Eight days later, while Robinson was in England, Hsing-Hsing died.
But the indignity and ridicule Hsing-Hsing endured throughout his life would not end. Hsing-Hsing and the remains of Ling-Ling–now in a basement vault–should be interred on the zoo grounds in a memorial befitting long-time members of the Washington family. Instead, the Smithsonian's plan is to stuff noble Hsing-Hsing and put him on display at the Museum of Natural History on the Mall–a cold place he never saw, a fate he never deserved. I don't think we will be visiting him there.