Today the giant panda holds a rarified position as one of the most iconic and celebrated endangered species on the planet, but that wasn't always the case. Less than 80 years ago, the giant panda was practically a creature of myth. Only a handful of westerners had ever seen a panda alive, and the few who had tended to be hunters — such as President Theodore Roosevelt's sons Kermit and Theodore III — who claimed the animals were vicious beasts and brought only their skins back to America.

That changed in 1936, the year the first living giant panda arrived in the United States. Su-Lin, as the young animal was named, became a media celebrity, as did the young woman who brought her back, Ruth Harkness, one of the most interesting and tragic explorers of the 20th century.

Harkness seems an unlikely figure to have brought the giant panda out of China. A wealthy fashion designer and socialite, she was the type of woman who "wouldn't even walk a city block if there was a taxi to be hailed," according to Vicki Constantine Croke, author of "The Lady and the Panda." Indeed, it was Ruth's husband, Bill, who was the original adventurer of the duo. A "bring 'em back alive" hunter who famously delivered several Komodo dragons to the Bronx Zoo, Bill Harkness had similarly boasted that he could bring giant pandas back to the U.S. as well. He even set out to do so, only to die from throat cancer in Shanghai before his expedition had a chance to begin.

An inherited quest

After inheriting her husband's estate, Ruth Harkness decided to also inherit his quest. Then 35 years old, Harkness joined up with 22-year-old Chinese-American naturalist Quentin Young and others to strike out into the Chinese mountains. The team traveled by river and by foot for two months, during which time Harkness and Young had an affair. At last, in November 1936, they arrived in the bamboo forests of Chengdu. One night Young heard gunshots, signs that local hunters had probably killed and eaten a panda for its less-than-appetizing meat. He knew they were close.

On Nov. 9, Young — who actually had little faith in his employer — heard a whimpering sound coming from the trees. "It was coming from the upside-down-V-shaped opening in a hollow tree, a baby panda, so young its eyes were not yet open," recounts Michael Kiefer in his book "Chasing the Panda." "Young wanted to put it back in the tree, assuming it would die without its mother — which he surmised the hunters had already shot. He wanted an adult bear; he'd brought chains and shackles and giant cages to restrain it. Harkness stumbled into the clearing just as Young was pulling the cub out of its den, and she took it from his arms and cradled it like a baby. She'd brought a piece of equipment in her pack that Young had not anticipated: a baby bottle."

Harkness named the panda Su-Lin, after Young's sister-in-law, herself an amazing woman and an experienced explorer who passed away in 2008 at the age of 96. While Young stayed behind looking for adult pandas, Harkness took Su-Lin (the animal) back to Shanghai, where she was greeted by a celebratory American press corps. Although Su-Lin was briefly confiscated by Chinese customs officials, Harkness had several powerful friends on her side and was able to reclaim the animal. She eventually made her way onto a boat bound for San Francisco (she listed the panda as a dog in customs forms). Eventually the two travelers made their way to New York City, where the media circus continued.

Destination Chicago

Harkness entered into negotiations with several zoos, eventually offering the giant panda to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago in exchange for $14,000 (Harkness, now claiming to be broke, had hoped for $20,000). Su-Lin became the most famous animal in the world and Harkness published the first of several popular travel articles and books.

Alas, the story takes several tragic turns at this point. Harkness faced critics, including her late husband's jealous ex-business partner, who claimed she made the whole thing up and had never traveled to panda country. Su-Lin died of pneumonia 16 months after arriving in the United States. Although Young never received the fame he deserved, Harkness made additional expeditions to China, bringing back another panda in 1938, and continued with a series of less successful adventures after that. She died alone in 1947 after a lifetime of alcohol abuse.

Today the giant panda remains one of the most revered species on Earth, a symbol of the need to conserve rare species and habitats. Zoos around the world hold giant pandas, China is actively conserving them, and every birth is celebrated. Ruth Harkness's legacy lives on.

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