The Lady and The Panda

by Vicki Constantine Croke

While the American explorer Ruth Harkness herself has written a book of the same title about her adventure in China, this non-fiction is Croke’s documentation of Harkness’ life based on Harkness’ memoir, her letters to her friends and families and other resources.   Well researched and written, the book takes the reader along with Harkness deep into the heart of China to find the elusive gentle giants.

Harkness is not just any Western explorer who ventured into the uncharted forest or jungle of the unknown land, and neither is she distinguished for her gender.  She is the first to capture a life baby panda and brought him to the western world.  That alone was a record but what was pivotal was her attitude towards the animal.  Before her, the interest of the hunters was in killing and pelting as many exotic animals as they can, to fulfill the demand of museums and private collectors in Europe and America.  When she emerged cuddling a cute little baby panda, the attitude of the world changed.  The world fell in love with little Su-lin.  The chubby body, large eye spot, flat face and fuzzy fur stirred every man’s heartstrings.  Veteran hunters held the baby and professed that they could no longer shoot another panda.   The cute panda lets people put a face to those animals and change their focus to keeping animals alive rather than shooting them dead.

Thus started the frenzy to capture pandas alive.  Hunting teams were sent to comb the animal’s native habitat; zoos price shopped.  Being held captive may not necessarily be better off than being killed.  Numerous died en route to the west, due to stress, inappropriate diet or living condition.  But it’s nonetheless a step up, without which we could not move to the next step of environmental conservation, to admire fauna and flora in their natural habitats.  

Harkness accomplished what her husband died trying to do.  However, as she sat alone in a guest room in Chengdu, she pondered the consequences of her action of the first capture of Su-Lin.  Pandas were dying in untold numbers. Watching the listless panda Su-sen in the cage, she saw a kindred spirit, independent, fearless and indominable, and decided to trek back to the mountains and return her to the wild. 

“There wasn’t much she could do to save the world from itself, but she could right her own path.”

Published in: on March 19, 2008 at 11:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

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