Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Woman Explorer and Giant Panda Mythbuster

March 28 - Today's post provided by Practically Paradise

Quick! Name ten explorers. How many of them were women? Perhaps you listed Sacagawea or Amelia Earhart? Did you include Delia Akeley, Christina Dodwell, Mary Kingsley, Florence Baker, Alexandrine Tinne, Gertrude Bell, Alexandra David-Neel, Florence Von Sass Baker, Isabella Bird Bishop, Annie Peck, Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), Eva Dickson, Marie-Anne Gaboury, Jeanne Baret, Josephine Diebitsch Peary, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Freya Stark, Valentina Tereshkova, Robyn Davidson, Liv Arnesen, Kira Salak, Ida Laura Pfeiffer, Harriet Chalmers Adams, or Ruth Harkness?

Ruth Harkness
If it weren’t for Alicia Potter’s sharing the story of Ruth Harkness in Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, I would not have begun to seek names of women explorers. Melissa Sweet illustrates this gem from Alfred Knopf, 2012. This picturebook retelling of the story of Ruth Harkness’ expedition to China to bring back the first live panda inspired me to delve more into women explorers, particularly Ruth Harkness.
Deborah Watson-Novacek created pages on squidoo for Female Explorers.   Her article aided my exploration and helped provide many helpful links. I was able to read several accounts of Ruth Harkness’ achievements including

·      Harkness, Ruth, The Lady and the Panda, Carrick & Evans, New York, 1938
·      Kiefer, Michael, Chasing the Giant Panda, 2002, ISBN 1-56858-223-4
·      Croke, Vicki Constantine, The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China's Most Exotic Animal, 2005) ISBN 0-375-50783-3
·      Masloff, E.B., "A Time for Loving Pandas", Published on (2002)
·      The Wikipedia article “Ruth Harkness”:  Women should be reading these articles, correcting, updating, and writing more of our history.

I have often wondered why some people in history had such a strong desire to travel, to wander, and to explore that they were willing to give all in their efforts. What qualities did these people possess that enabled them to achieve more than others? None of these people were perfect. Most had conflicts in their personal lives and many did not reap great benefits from their explorations.

The article in the Christian Science Monitor by Adelle Waldman on August 9, 2005, “How a party girl went in search of a panda: The true tale of a 1930s New York socialite who trekked Tibet determined to bring home a cub.”  reviewed Vicki Constantine Croke’s book "The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China's Most Exotic Animal."  The writer states “That Harkness had flaws does not, of course, make her an unworthy subject for a biography - on the contrary, it perhaps makes her all the more interesting.”

To me, this acknowledgement of flaws makes a biography far more believable. Croke’s novel provides additional information and does not have to sift through details to fit in a 32 page picture book. Her 400 page novel provides a great deal more information, but also lauds Ruth Harkness a bit much for my own cynical taste. I can overlook this as I supplemented my reading with other accounts of Ruth Harkness’ deterioration and death at 46.

Kate Kelly on the web site America Comes Alive highlights Ruth Harkness as an Influential Woman. America Comes Alive! is a site Kate Kelly created to share little-known stories of America’s past. She wrote, When I selected Ruth Harkness for the 2012 “Inspirational Women” list, most descriptions were of a “socialite-turned-explorer who brought home the first living panda.”  As I read in greater depth there was much more that was unsaid regarding the well-being of wildlife as well as the life of Ruth Harkness. Her life tells a particular story of her time.  I was captivated, though it certainly was not what I expected!”

What does it take to motivate anyone, male or female, to leave their comfort zone and achieve something no one else has ever done? Ruth McCombs Harkness was a New York City fashion designer and a socialite. She had been friends with her husband William Harkness for ten years but married to him only two weeks before he left on a mission to bring back the first live giant panda. Since William had already successfully brought back Komodo dragons, it was a shock for Ruth Harkness to learn that while William was delayed in China, he died of throat cancer before setting out on his expedition.
As Croke states, “Left with a tiny fortune, Harkness decided to use it to follow in his footsteps, a stunning decision for a woman who wouldn't even walk a city block if there was a taxi to be hailed."
Alicia Potter in Mrs. Harkness and the Panda manages to point out the criticism Ruth faced from nearly everyone when she announced her intentions to finish William’s expedition. In describing the “Panda-monium!” that occurred when Mrs. Harkness arrived in America carrying the panda in her arms, Alica Potter simply vindicates Ruth Harkness’ bravery and determination by stating:

“None of these newspaper stories called Mrs. Harkness crazy. Or foolish. Or reckless. They called her a “woman explorer”.”

Potter downplays much of the conflicts Ruth faced; although she does acknowledge in the author’s note how our values and ideas towards animal conservation have changed. Since our story ends with Su Lin finding a home at the Brookfield Zoo, and Ruth Harkness finding a home in the “rugged, beautiful mountains of faraway China”, the chronology of events provided important follow-up details. Since I wrote my very first research paper on the giant panda in elementary school, I have been intrigued by this animal that was thought to be mythical even in most of China.

Su-Lin, Brookfield Zoo
The giant panda became known to the Western world in 1869 when a French missionary Pere Armand David sent a dead pelt to the Museum of Natural History in Paris. In 1929 Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt (sons of former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt) killed a giant panda which was then stuffed and exhibited at the Chicago Field Museum. Between that time and Ruth Harkness’ journey, twelve well-staffed and equipped professional expeditions to China failed to collect a single live specimen.  How did Ruth Harkness expect to succeed where they had failed? Somehow with her 22 bags of luggage and her guide Quentin Young, her expedition succeeded. There were rumors and innuendos to be faced, but Ruth’s achievements stood.

Even when women achieved milestones in exploration and adventure, they often could not receive the benefits. Deborah Watson-Novacek notes  “The adoration of the American public did not help Ruth overcome the chauvinism of the all-male institutions in the field of science and exploration, however. Many institutions snubbed her before the Explorers Club did her the "honor" of being the first women allowed to attend a dinner with the "gentlemen." It should be noted, however, that the Club listed Su-Lin, not Harkness, as their guest of honor for the evening.”

Other sources I explored after reading this picture book include:

Honest, Fair, Courageous and Strong: Four Picture Books Starring Real-Life Heroines” by CANDACE FLEMING Published: March 9, 2012 New York Times Sunday Book Review which reviews Potter’s Mrs. Harkness and the Panda. Fleming states “Sweet’s mixed-media images, which incorporate maps, handmade paper and delicate watercolor drawings, give the book the feel of a travel journal — a wonderful way of accompanying Harkness on her journey.”

The web page A Woman’s Bridge has an article on April 15, 2011, “Ruth Harkness and the Giant Panda” by Yoon Joung Lee. The mission of A Woman's Bridge Foundation, established in 2009, was to create a sense of unity, vision, and purpose among women as a community of professionals, wives, mothers, and simply as people. “Women must reach out to each other more to value and protect each other whether as housewives or as corporate executives. We create partnerships for women in need, particularly those in local area shelters, and help raise supplies and awareness for local area women’s' shelters and services. We also establish dialogue to further thought on national and international women’s' issues.”

While searching for Ruth Harkness’ obituary, I found instead the obituary for Adelaide “Su-Lin” Young who is the namesake for the panda Ruth Harkness brought to America.

“In the 1930s, Adelaide “Su-Lin” Young, the pampered and glamorous daughter of a New York nightclub owner, morphed into one of the first female explorers to venture into the part of China devastated by last week’s earthquake.” (Earthquake referred to was the Sichuan province 2008 earthquake

Mrs. Young was believed to be the first American female explorer to enter the Tibetan-Himalayan region.  San Francisco Chronicle

World Wildlife Foundation:  In 2004, the results of the most comprehensive survey of China's giant panda population revealed that there are nearly 1,600 pandas in the wild, over 40 percent more animals than previously thought to exist. These findings came from a four-year-long study of pandas and their habitat carried out by the State Forestry Administration of China and WWF. In Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, Alicia Potter states in the end notes that there are approximately 2,500 giant pandas in the world. I do wonder about this discrepancy.

Facts from the Brookfield Zoo history of the Giant Panda:  The Brookfield Zoo was the first zoo in the world to have a giant panda. The Brookfield Zoo was formally opened on June 30, 1934. Su Lin (male) was born approximately in September 1936. His name means "A Little Bit of Something Precious" in Chinese. He was captured by Ruth Harkness in the bamboo forests of the Szechuan mountains of southwestern China on November 9, 1936. Su Lin came to the Brookfield Zoo on February 8, 1937. He choked on an oak stick, developed complications from an infection, and died in April, 1938.  The Brookfield Zoo had a Giant Panda Zoo from 1937-1953.  

Panda Cam’s and Links:
·      San Diego Zoo
·      Atlanta Zoo
·      Memphis Zoo
·      Track the 4 US zoo cam’s at once
·       Bifengxia Panda Reserve!/live-cams/player/china-panda-cam-1
·      Wolong Giant Panda Center, Wolong, Sichuan Province, China
·      Hong Kong Ocean Park Zoo has four cam’s
·      Pandapoly 

None of these sources provides all the answers I seek. They provide “pieces of the puzzle” or “strands of life’s weavings”, glimpses into the past, but mainly more questions. Isn’t the study of history simply the refining of our questions and the rebuilding of our knowledge structures? We are constantly changing as we learn. Our questions change as we change.

I still ponder why some people in history explore more and what qualities they possess that enable them to achieve more than others. I am excited each time I discover a new gem like Mrs. Harkness and the Panda because I know authors will continue to create new biographies to try to answer these questions – and maybe provoke a few more in the process.

Editor's Note:  Diane (R. Chen) Kelly writes the blog Practically Paradise for School Library Journal. She has taught in Tennessee, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Germany and Taiwan with 20 years at the elementary level & 3 at the middle school. She recently finished a term on the ALA executive board which kept her busy at conferences but she remains active on Council & in committees for ALA, TLA, TASL, TEA, MNEA, FTRF, and AASL. All blog posts reflect solely Diane's opinions. You can email her at dianerchen @ gmail dot com.


  1. I just read this book yesterday. Fascinating! Thanks for joining us, Diane. Lisa

  2. Thanks for a fascinating post, Diane! I remember vividly the first time I saw a live panda at the Washington Zoo--many many years ago. At the time they were the only ones in the US. Is there anything cuter? Although it was shocking to read how Mrs. Harkness and her team "stole" a baby panda from the wild--different times, different ethics.

  3. It definitely reads as grab and snatch techniques to obtain the pandas. Some accounts say the panda was being raised in a village. Others said the panda was reserved for Mr. Harkness' former partner. She always denied that. Knowing she returned and tried to take two more pandas to the U.S., but only one survived adds to the sadness. When I realized she was stopped at the harbor, yet somehow managed to slip through customs, I was torn between admiration for her tenacity and regret for the Chinese people who lost their panda. Conservation and animal ethics have come far.

  4. What a great topic; I was only able to think of a couple of female explorers but I loved learning about the socialite who bagged a panda. I can't wait to read the book!

  5. Terrific post! Thanks for the links to related articles & videos, which I plan to check out after I read the story. I'd never heard of Ruth Harkness until Melissa told me that she was illustrating this book. Hers is a fascinating tale and you've made it even more interesting w/ this post!