Panda-monium at the Bronx Zoo: A History

Song Meiling with panda
Song Meiling with panda

Last week, the New York Times ran a long article detailing the efforts of Representative Carolyn B. Maloney to secure two pandas for the Bronx Zoo. Maloney’s quest faces political hurdles in both New York and Beijing: Mayor Bill de Blasio won’t support any panda plan that requires public funding (building a habitat, leasing the bears from China, and caring for them will cost tens of millions of dollars, per the NYT), while Chinese officials say that the United States has reached max panda, as zoos in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Memphis, and San Diego already have bears on display. Given how difficult it is to breed and raise the animals, PRC authorities are reluctant to share too many of them with any single country. Maloney, undeterred, has convinced de Blasio to sign a letter of support and coaxed Beijing’s ambassador to the U.S. to agree that China will “consider the formal initiation of cooperation when conditions are mature.” So someday it might be the Bronx Zoo posting videos of adorable pandas rolling around in the snow—but probably not anytime soon.

Reading this story sparked a memory from my dissertation research: I was pretty sure that the Bronx Zoo had previously received pandas from China. Digging through my computer files, I did indeed find a newspaper clipping from December 1941, which said that two young pandas had reached San Francisco en route from China to the Bronx. The reason this small clip had turned up in my research was that the pandas were the gifts of Song Meiling (Madame Chiang Kai-shek) and her sister, Song Ailing; both leading figures in the child-welfare movement, they had sent the bears to the children of the U.S. in thanks for the contributions they had made to the Chinese war effort. Song Meiling was a major character in the chapter I wrote about child welfare during World War II and American efforts to aid the children of China, but the panda story was merely a bit of color. I only had the one clip and didn’t look for anything more. The article about Maloney, however, prompted me to visit the New York Times online archive and get the full story of those Bronx Zoo pandas from 1941.

The two pandas sent by Song Meiling were actually replacements for Pan and Pandora, earlier bears that had died. Those pandas—New York’s first—had arrived in the Bronx in 1938, then switched boroughs for a time to hang out at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens. They were popular attractions at both places. By the middle of 1941, however, both Pan and Pandora were dead, rendering the Bronx Zoo panda-less. China had been mired in war with Japan since 1937, and although the United States had yet to officially join that fight, people across the country had been supporting aid organizations, most significantly United China Relief, which boasted names like Pearl Buck, John D. Rockefeller III, and David O. Selznick (producer of Gone With the Wind) on its board of directors. A panda, though rare and difficult to capture, must have seemed a reasonable goodwill gesture to give such a staunch wartime ally.

So in early September 1941, Song Meiling cabled the United China Relief office to inform the organization that she had authorized the gift of one panda to the Bronx Zoo, a “special concession” by the Chinese government, which usually prevented the capture and export of the rare mammal. As recounted by American missionary David Crockett Graham, who lived in Sichuan province and was enlisted to assist in the hunt for a panda, the matter was of great urgency to Chiang Kai-shek’s government. Officials worried that if they were unable to deliver a bear expeditiously, Americans would sour on China, so Graham and his search party were dispatched on the panda beat immediately, with no regard given to his protests that it was the wrong time of year to go panda-hunting. The group first tried to capture a bear in the wild, but despite assembling “probably the biggest panda hunt ever organized at one time,” they wound up buying a panda from someone else who had captured one. By the end of September, New York Zoological Society staffer John Tee-Van was on his way to Chongqing to pick up a panda to go.

Tee-Van, however, would actually receive not one, but two pandas when he arrived in southwest China: Graham’s group had secured one, while another search party had managed to capture a second. (Presumably, the idea of nabbing a panda quickly had been seen as so difficult that multiple groups were sent out on the mission, no one imagining that more than one group would emerge with bear in hand.) At a send-off ceremony in Chongqing on November 9, Song Meiling proclaimed that she hoped “that their playful antics will bring as much joy to American children as American friendship has brought to our Chinese people.” Tee-Van announced that the pair of pandas would live “as man and wife” at the zoo—an idea that had to be scuttled when both turned out to be female.

Tee-Van and the pandas set off from Chongqing on a six-week voyage to the Bronx, one notable leg of which involved crossing the Pacific by boat shortly after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Arriving safely, the pandas were formally presented to the zoo on December 30, 1941 by the Chinese consul general in New York and immediately put on display. The zoo and United China Relief also opened a nationwide contest to name the animals, which were christened Pan-dee and Pan-dah five months later at the suggestion of 11-year-old Nancy Lostutter of Columbus, Indiana. Ensconced in the “Pandorium,” the pair settled in to their new home.

While the arrival of Pan-dee and Pan-dah had inadvertently coincided with the official cementing of the Sino-American wartime partnership as the United States entered the fight, their respective deaths aligned with the deterioration of relations between the two countries. Pan-dee went first, falling victim to peritonitis on October 4, 1945, less than two months after the Japanese defeat. By this point, the U.S.-China alliance was breaking down, American leaders no longer feeling a need to hide their disdain for Chiang Kai-shek or support his corrupt government. Pan-dah (renamed Susie at some point) continued roaming the Pandorium until October 31, 1951, when she was found facedown in the habitat’s pool, cause of death unknown. With Mao Zedong’s communist government now leading China and U.S.-China relations decisively on the outs, there was no hope of obtaining a new panda to replace Pan-dah/Susie, thus ending the Bronx Zoo’s panda exhibit.

Since the resumption of “panda diplomacy” with the United States in 1972 following Richard Nixon’s trip to China, there have been only occasional moves to bring pandas back to the Bronx. In 1984, New York Mayor Ed Koch allegedly told Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang that “If I get two pandas, I’ll get re-elected.” Although Koch did win another term in office, he only wrangled a short-term panda loan, which resulted in a special two-bear exhibit at the zoo in the summer of 1987 that attracted over a million visitors. In an October 2000 Times article about the zoo’s panda-free state, a member of the zoo’s leadership said that “Maybe, way down the road” they would explore the possibility of acquiring the black-and-white animals.

Despite Maloney’s efforts, it doesn’t sound like we’ve arrived at that point “way down the road” yet, as both New York and Beijing seem lukewarm on the proposal right now. Don’t be fooled by their innocent-looking faces: pandas are political animals. And as the story of Pan-dee and Pan-dah shows, they have been for a long, long time.

New York Times Archival Sources
“Bronx to Get New Panda” (September 12, 1941)
“Zoo Sending for Panda” (September 23, 1941)
“Two Pandas Are Presented to Bronx Zoo By Chinese at Ceremony in Chungking” (November 10, 1941)
“Zoo Gets Pandas; Debut Is Formal” (December 31, 1941)
“Pan-Dee and Pan-Dah Cut Capers Before Accepting Names at the Zoo” (May 28, 1942)
“Panda Dies at the Zoo” (October 5, 1945)
“Susie, Last of Bronx Zoo’s Giant Pandas, Found Dead in the Shallow Pool in Her Pen” (November 1, 1951)

Photo credit: Shanghai 1937 blog.

9 thoughts on “Panda-monium at the Bronx Zoo: A History

  1. As a young child my visits to the Bronx Zoo always included a visit to the Panda exhibit! It was magical to see a Panda up close. Thank you to the wonderful women who shared these treasures with the Children of the United States!

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