Forty years ago today, “panda-monium” officially struck Washington, DC with the arrival of two giant pandas at Andrews Air Force Base. The pandas, Hsing-Hsing (male) and Ling-Ling (female), were a state gift from the People’s Republic of China following President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the country (Nixon presented the Chinese with a pair of musk oxen). They were officially presented to the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park on April 20, 1972, four days after their arrival in the country, and were accepted by First Lady Patricia Nixon.
National Zoological Park Director, Theodore Reed, had warned that the pandas "willsteal your heart away." The public was definitely enthused. Over a million people visited the zoo in the first four weeks that the pandas were on display (as compared to 677,115 visitors during the same period the previous year). On Sunday, April 23 alone, there were 75,757 visitors to the zoo. Sybil E. Hamlet, Public Information Officer, warned the public that they could expect waits of up to 45 minutes to see the pandas. The best time to view them was at feeding times, 10 am and 4 pm.
Leading up to their arrival, zoo staff knew that the pandas had been given Chinese names, but not what those names were. Many individuals wrote with suggestions. Hamlet responded to one such letter, "There have been many people suggesting the names Ping and Pong but it was thought that to honor such a generous gift, their Chinese names should be retained."
The National Zoo had high hopes for baby pandas. Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling were generally kept apart to mimic what was believed to be panda behavior in the wild. They were first brought together on May 26, 1973 when Ling-Ling went into heat. Hsing-Hsing, however, did not seem to know what to do. The public sent mail addressed to the pandas to encourage them in their endeavors. One such card, written by Rosalind Peest (or Reest—the spelling is unclear) in 1973, included a poem:
Prothalamium for a Pair of Pandas
Of thee I Hsing-Hsing, baby!
You have got that certain thing, Baby!
Oh some bells ring-a-ding-ding!
But this wedding-belle is a-peal-a-Ling-Ling!!
Your courtship is complete riot…
Mating and/or artificial insemination as well as the subsequent "pregnancy watch" would become an annual tradition at the zoo and often made national headlines. The wait was often dramatic due to the difficulties in determining if a panda is pregnant. Ultimately, Ling-Ling gave birth five times, but none of the cubs survived.
Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing passed away in 1992 and 1999, respectively. In 2000, the National Zoo received another two pandas on loan from China, Tian Tian (male) and Mei Xiang (female). On July 9, 2005, Mei Xiang gave birth to Tai Shan (male), the first surviving panda cub to be born at the National Zoo.
More information about Hsing-Hsing, Ling-Ling, and all of the giant pandas at the National Zoo can be found in our collections and on the zoo's website. Other panda-related stories here on The Bigger Picture include a post about the zoo’s former photographer, "Remembering Jessie Cohen" and a post about one of the zoo’s panda researchers entitled "The Archival Legacy of Devra Kleiman."