The West first learned of the existence of the panda when the French missionary Pere Armand David saw a panda skin while visiting remote western regions of China in 1869. For nearly fifty years after his report, European and American explorers sought the rare animal without success, only buying second-hand hides. As late as the 1920s the scientific community questioned whether pandas were extinct or mythical, according to Vicki Constantine Croke in her book The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China’s Most Exotic Animal.
By the time Ruth Harkness arrived in China to attend to the remains of her late husband’s expedition in 1936, several big game hunters had sent panda skins to museums, but no one had succeeded in bringing a live panda out of the country. Her husband had gone to China to try, but died of cancer in a Shanghai hospital without ever seeing one. No one thought a former dress maker and New York socialite could succeed where seasoned hunters had failed. They did not know Ruth’s idea. They never even thought of packing a baby bottle and formula.
In The Lady and the Panda, Croke tells the story of Harkness, her three expeditions, and the international acclaim that she received for bringing two pandas to the Brookfield Zoo. The journeys were difficult. When available, Harkness and her team traveled by boat, train, plane, auto, or rickshaw; often they hiked up steep paths to reach mountainous forest reserves. With supporters and rivals in the field, she dodged Chinese authorities and the invading Japanese army. In time she came to the conclusion that the expeditions were endangering the pandas and dishonored the land that she had come to love.
Readers who enjoy natural and political history and those who enjoy adventure stories will enjoy this book.
Croke, Vicki Constantine. The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China’s Most Exotic Animal. New York: Random House, 2005. ISBN 0375507833