Giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing play in their enclosures, 1973, by Francine Schroeder, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-009, Image no. 73-8215.

“Do Pandas Affect Everyone This Way?”: Celebrating 50 Years of Giant Pandas at the National Zoo

This year marks the 50th anniversary since the arrival of giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing at the National Zoo. To celebrate, we’re highlighting some giant panda records at the Archives.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the arrival of giant pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. In the past, we’ve blogged about what happened when Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling made the long journey from China and their first debut at the Zoo in 1972. We’ve also covered the history of giant panda conservation over the years. Today, we’ll share a peek into the audiovisual materials, correspondence, historic photographs, and panda “fan mail” in our collections at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. 

On April 20, 1972, First Lady Pat Nixon officially welcomed giant pandas to the Smithsonian. “I think panda-monium is going to break out right here at the Zoo,” she declared in a brief speech. And the first lady was certainly right. More than one million visitors stood in lines to catch a glimpse of Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing during their first month at the Zoo. Our audiovisual holdings include a clip from the welcome ceremony. Though this film is silent, you can hear the full speeches from the Richard Nixon Foundation.  

 

Did you know that Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing made a pitstop in Hawaii on their way to the United States? Or that they blissfully slept through much of their first Sunday at the Zoo, while long lines of visitors watched behind the glass? These are the details we know from the unpublished manuscript The National Zoological Park From Its Beginnings to 1973 by Sybil “Billie” Hamlet, who had been a public information officer at the Zoo for more than two decades. In the pages below, Hamlet carefully described how and why giant pandas came to the Smithsonian. In her chronology, she called 1972 "the year of the giant pandas."

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The National Zoological Park From Its Beginnings to 1973 by Sybil “Billie” Hamlet, December 1985, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 365, Box 39, Folder 1-3.

The National Zoological Park From Its Beginnings to 1973 by Sybil “Billie” Hamlet, December 1985, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 365, Box 39, Folder 1-3.

The National Zoological Park From Its Beginnings to 1973 by Sybil “Billie” Hamlet, December 1985, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 365, Box 39, Folder 1-3.

The National Zoological Park From Its Beginnings to 1973 by Sybil “Billie” Hamlet, December 1985, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 365, Box 39, Folder 1-3.

The National Zoological Park From Its Beginnings to 1973 by Sybil “Billie” Hamlet, December 1985, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 365, Box 39, Folder 1-3.

The National Zoological Park From Its Beginnings to 1973 by Sybil “Billie” Hamlet, December 1985, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 365, Box 39, Folder 1-3.

The National Zoological Park From Its Beginnings to 1973 by Sybil “Billie” Hamlet, December 1985, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 365, Box 39, Folder 1-3.

The National Zoological Park From Its Beginnings to 1973 by Sybil “Billie” Hamlet, December 1985, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 365, Box 39, Folder 1-3.

The National Zoological Park From Its Beginnings to 1973 by Sybil “Billie” Hamlet, December 1985, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 365, Box 39, Folder 1-3.

The National Zoological Park From Its Beginnings to 1973 by Sybil “Billie” Hamlet, December 1985, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 365, Box 39, Folder 1-3.

In addition to the manuscript, the records Hamlet maintained also include correspondence about giant pandas at the Zoo. Amid a sea of clippings, press releases, and inquiries from the press is this very interesting letter addressed to Leslie E. Sagle, a technician at the Archives, from former Zoo director Dr. Theodore Reed. Reed noted that the U.S. had planned to present China with a pair of musk oxen before the country announced its gift of giant pandas, so it would not be fair to call the swap an exchange. “Viva le archives !!!”

Letter from Dr. Theodore Reed to Leslie E. Sagle, November 26, 1992, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 365, Box 24, Folder: Panda, NZP-memoranda and official correspondence. 1972–1977, 1980 + undated.

Letter from Dr. Theodore Reed to Leslie E. Sagle, November 26, 1992, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 365, Box 24, Folder: Panda, NZP-memoranda and official correspondence. 1972–1977, 1980 + undated.

Recently-digitized photographs of Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing give us a sense of the pair’s day-to-day life at the Zoo. Scroll through the photographs from 1973, one year after the giant pandas’ arrival to the Smithsonian.

Giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing play in their enclosures, 1973, by Francine Schroeder, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-009, Image no. 73-3758.

Giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing play in their enclosures, 1973, by Francine Schroeder, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-009, Image no. 73-8215.

Giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing play in their enclosures, 1973, by Francine Schroeder, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-009, Image no. 73-3766.

Giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing play in their enclosures, 1973, by Francine Schroeder, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-009, Image no. 73-8207.

Giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing play in their enclosures, 1973, by Francine Schroeder, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-009, Image no. 73-3769.

Giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing play in their enclosures, 1973, by Francine Schroeder, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-009, Image no. 73-8204.

And finally, “fan mail” sent to zookeeper and giant panda curator Lisa Stevens demonstrates just how beloved Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were by people in the United States. Her records include drawings from elementary school students and holiday cards from adoring fans. One letter from artist Tim Teebken really demonstrates how enamored the public was with the bears. He wrote that he was compelled to send the letter after simply seeing a special about the pandas on the morning news and asked Stevens: “Do pandas affect everyone this way?” During some more difficult episodes when Ling-Ling’s cubs passed away, mothers wrote to the bear and to Stevens about their own struggles with fertility. Whether it was a query from a 5th grade student working on a project about giant pandas or a thank-you letter from a visitor, Stevens always responded with a thoughtful reply. 

Letter from Marcia, a 2nd grade student from Florida, to Ling-Ling, Card from the Holley Family to Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 08-102, Box 1, Folder: Panda Mail, 1987-1991, front.

Letter from Marcia, a 2nd grade student from Florida, to Ling-Ling, Card from the Holley Family to Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 08-102, Box 1, Folder: Panda Mail, 1987-1991, back.

Card from the Holley Family to Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 08-102, Box 1, Folder: Panda Mail, 1987-1991, cover.

Card from the Holley Family to Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 08-102, Box 1, Folder: Panda Mail, 1987-1991, inside.

Letter from illustrator Tim Teebken to Lisa Stevens, June 6, 1990, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 08-102, Box 1, Folder: Panda Mail, 1987-1991, front.

Letter from illustrator Tim Teebken to Lisa Stevens, June 6, 1990, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 08-102, Box 1, Folder: Panda Mail, 1987-1991, back.

Do you want to celebrate this milestone anniversary? Learn about how the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is commemorating 50 years of giant panda care and conservation. 

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