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The History of Pandas Coming to America

Nature By
Hsing-Hsing Eats Bamboo at National Zoo
The panda Hsing-Hsing eats bamboo at the National Zoo. (Getty Images)

 

Eighty years ago, three-month-old panda cub Su Lin arrived in California. Ever since, Americans have adored pandas. (Supposedly even Al Capone couldn’t wait to see one.) Kat Eschner recounts the complete history of this love affair for Smithsonian magazine.

It’s a relationship with highs and lows. Between 1936 and 1946, 14 pandas were taken from China. In 1946, China chose to end the practice of panda exporting. By the early 1950s, all of America’s pandas were dead. (At one point, pandas were in zoos in places including Chicago, the Bronx, and St. Louis.)

In 1957, China began to allow pandas to leave the country again. Of course, China was now under Communist control. As a result, the first panda did not go to the United States, but our nemesis the Soviet Union. (Ping Ping failed to adjust to the cold of the U.S.S.R., dying after only three years.)

President Richard Nixon is to thank for the restoration of the panda pipeline. After his visit to China in 1972, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were presented to the National Zoo. They lived out their lives there, having five cubs. Sadly, the National Zoo at the time had a limited understanding of panda breeding, and no cub lived more than a few days there.

Today, China continues to let pandas leave, but with the understanding that these incredibly cute creatures are loans, not gifts. (This is a fine time to see Bao Bao at the National Zoo, because she returns home in 2017.)

To read more about pandas at Smithsonian, click here. And if you need a fix of furry goodness, watch giant panda cub Bei Bei celebrate turning one at a birthday party at Washington’s National Zoo.