David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Panda-monium — Parshat Matot

The pandas were really cute, of course, but more importantly, saving them protected the future for ourselves and our children. Moses understood this need too
The body of Su Lin at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. (Public Domain, Zagalejo/ Wikimedia Commons)
The body of Su Lin at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. (Public Domain, Zagalejo/ Wikimedia Commons)

Pandas are perhaps the most famous engendered species in the world, having been the “face” of the World Wildlife Fund for decades. With their big eyes and their cute roly-poly cuddliness, they appeal to us, perhaps because they are not so different than human babies.

The reason that pandas have captured the imagination of the world is largely due to two women, a 1930s socialite and fashion designer, and a 1970s US first lady.

Ruth Harkness was born in 1900 in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Her father was a carpenter and her mother was a seamstress. She moved to New York City, enticed by the Jazz Age, speakeasies and the flapper-culture. She is quoted as having said that there were two things she hated: “Going to bed at night and getting up in the morning.”

In New York, she met Bill Harkness, who was the son of a wealthy and respectable attorney. After several years of spending time with each other, much to the disapproval of Bill’s family, the two finally married. Together they dreamed of traveling the world and discovering exotic species. Bill had already been to Indonesia and brought back the world’s largest lizard, the Komodo dragon, to the United States. It was the first time Americans had seen such a creature.

The newlyweds were going to tour the globe together. But first, Bill had already planned an expedition to China, to bring back a giant panda. A missionary named l’Abbe Armand David had sent a panda skin back to a French museum in 1868. And in 1929, Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt, sons of President Theodore Roosevelt, organized a panda expedition. After months of traveling, high in the bamboo-covered mountains, an adult panda stumbled sleepily out of the trees in front of him. They shot the bear and brought him back to Chicago where he was stuffed and put on display at the Field Museum. But the Harkness expedition would be the first to bring back a live panda to the West.

Ruth Harkness and Su Lin. (WIkimedia Commons)

Bill wrote to Ruth regularly, sending cheerful reports and telling her of his frustration that it was taking many months to obtain the necessary permits from the Chinese government. Then, in February 1936, there were no more letters. Bill had died from throat cancer in a Chinese hospital.

In an instant, the future Ruth and her husband had planned for themselves was gone. Ruth was now left a widow in New York, with many friends, but no income and no plans.

She decided to continue her husband’s work and headed on the next boat to China to find herself a panda. It took her nearly three months to get to China. She wrote that when she arrived, she had no idea how to organize an expedition. “I had never been on one before, although I had heard a great deal about them from my husband who had been an explorer.”

Somehow, she managed to put together a team of guides, led by a Chinese American named Quentin Young. Together, they decided it would be too difficult to bring a 300-pound giant panda back to Shanghai and on a boat to the US. So, Ruth decided to look for a baby panda. “In spite of the fact that they thought I was silly, I had Quentin buy a nursing bottle and some tins of dried milk.”

Ruth admitted, in her 1938 book, “The Baby Giant Panda”: “We didn’t have much hope of getting a baby panda, really, but it was fun to talk about.”

The team travelled up the Yangtze “in a darling little river boat,” and trekked 1,500 miles to the Tibetan border. Then, one day:

Quentin stopped suddenly. He listened a moment and then went forward so rapidly I couldn’t keep up with him. Dimly I saw him through the wet, waving branches standing near a huge rotting tree. I followed as best I could, brushing the water from my face and eyes. Then I, too, stopped – frozen in my tracks.

From the old dead tree trunk came a baby’s whimper…

Quentin reached into the hollow trunk of the tree. Then he turned and walked toward me. In his arms was a baby – a baby who was whimpering just as your own little brother or sister might. But it wasn’t any kind of baby you or I had ever seen before. Probably no one had ever seen a baby like it because it was a baby giant panda.

I took her in my arms, or rather in my hands, for she wasn’t any bigger than a kitten, and just as blind as kittens always are. She looked exactly like a miniature picture of the big stuffed pandas I have seen in museums… Quentin and the other hunters agreed that she couldn’t have been born more than a week or ten days before.

Ruth had no veterinary training, and hardly anyone knew anything about pandas anyway, so she had to figure out by herself how to care for the nine-week-old panda cub. She named the bear Su Lin, which means “a little bit of something very cute.” But something cute was also something very demanding. Ruth wrote of how, in the middle of the night, when the panda was cold or sad, she “would take her into bed with me… She would cry a little and then snuggle down in my hair, or go to sleep sucking the lobe of my ear.

Eventually, after journeying by automobile, rickshaw, boat, plane, and ship, and after run-ins with Chinese authorities, Harkness and Su Lin arrived in San Francisco on December 18, aboard the SS President McKinley. Harkness walked off the ship carrying the panda in her arms. She was greeted by dozens of reporters wanting to hear her story. Explorer and panda then took the train to Chicago, then on to New York, in time for Christmas.

Su Lin was a huge hit. She was interviewed on the radio by Dr. Granger of the Explorer’s Club.

He asked her what her name was. Her answer was, ‘I’m hungry.’ There were probably many thousand of people all over America who heard Su Lin’s reply, but I doubt if one of them really understood what she said.

Although Harkness loved having Su Lin living with her in her New York apartment, she decided that she would have to sell her to a zoo where the panda could be properly cared for. In February, she brought her to the Chicago Zoological Society, where the panda was placed in a cage near the polar bears, and, for the first time since being found by Harness, Su Lin slept by herself.

Harkness headed back to China to find another panda. She brought Mei-Mei to the US in 1937. In time, hundreds of thousands of people came to see the cute bears, and marvel at them.

Harkness died in her New York apartment in 1947.

Twenty-five years later, Richard Nixon made history by becoming the first US president to visit the People’s Republic of China. The seven-day trip led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

During one of the official dinners, First Lady Pat Nixon was sitting next to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Legend has it that Zhou took out a packet of cigarettes and placed them on the table. The tin had a picture of two pandas on it.

The first lady remarked, ‘Aren’t they cute. I love them.’

Zhou replied, ‘I’ll give you some.’

‘Cigarettes?’ she asked.

‘No,’ Zhou said. ‘Pandas.’

On April 16, 1972, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling arrived at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, DC. Over 20,000 people joined the first lady to welcome the black and white bears.

‘Here at the National Zoo they will be enjoyed by the millions of people who come from across the country to visit the nation’s capital each year,’ Pat Nixon said, declaring that ‘Panda-monium’ had broken out.

An estimated 1.1 million people came to visit the pandas in the first year alone, and they remain the zoo’s top attraction. After they deaths, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling were replaced by Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who have been at the zoo since 2000 and can be watched live on the Smithsonian’s panda cam.

Pat Nixon viewing pandas in a Chinese zoo in 1972. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

And that is how pandas became the public face of animal conservation. Millions and millions of dollars have been raised to save the pandas, and as a result, pandas are no longer an endangered species.

But is it worth focusing so heavily on saving the pandas when there are so many other less cuddly species of flora and fauna that are critically endangered? Not to mention that there are millions of starving humans in the world. Isn’t it more important to raise money to save human lives than animal lives?

I think there are many reasons to justify the efforts to save the pandas, along with the other species who also benefit from WWF funding. And there is enough money in the world to save both the animals and the starving people. But more importantly, by saving the animals, we are also saving humanity.

A 2018 study found that conserving the panda’s habitat was worth roughly $2.6 billion in 2010, at least 10 times the money spent that year to conserve the cuddly bears.

A 1997 paper placed the economic value of the world’s ecosystem and natural capital at an average of $33 trillion per year. The authors claimed that:

The services of ecological systems and the natural capital stocks that produce them are critical to the functioning of the Earth’s life-support system. They contribute to human welfare, both directly and indirectly, and therefore represent part of the total economic value of the planet.

In other words, when we save the pandas, and other species, and their ecosystems, we are also preserving a future for ourselves and for our families. From a purely economic perspective, investing in the biosphere is valuable. And it saves human lives, both directly and indirectly. The question of whether or not to prioritize humans over animals is alluded to in this week’s Torah portion of Matot.

The tribes of Reuven and Gad tell Moses they would rather stay on the “other” side of the Jordan River, and not inherit the land of Israel with the rest of the nation. At first, Moses misunderstands their intent, and rebukes them for not wanting to enter the land. But the two tribes clarify that they will help conquer Israel, and only afterwards return to the other side of the Jordan (Numbers 32:16-18).

We will build pens for our sheep here and cities for our children. And we will go armed before the Children of Israel until they have been brought to their place. Our children will live in fortified cities because of those who dwell in the land. But we will not return to our homes until each person of the Children of Israel has inherited his portion.

Moshe accepts their request, allowing them to live and build where they are, on the condition that they support their brothers and sisters in conquering the land of Israel. However, he subtly rebukes them once again for what he thinks are their misplaced priorities (Numbers 32:20-24).

If you do this thing… and conquer the land… then afterwards return… this land shall be for you as an inheritance… Build cities for your children and pens for your sheep and do everything which came out of your mouths.

The tribes of Reuven and Gad prioritized the sheep over their children. They knew that without the wool for clothing, the milk to drink and the mutton to eat, their children would not be able to survive.

Moses first mentioned the children. He told them that first they should build the cities for their children and only afterwards worry about pens for the sheep.

The truth is that both viewpoints are correct though sometimes we forget.

Moses is correct that if we don’t care for our children, we also won’t care for our environment. As the Manic Street Preachers sang, “If you tolerate this, your children will be next.” But if you don’t care about your children, then you will tolerate anything.

But if we fail to look after our domestic animals, we ourselves suffer. Diseases such as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which comes from feeding cows diseased food, leading them to get Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (Mad Cow Disease), to rabies, ringworm, listeriosis, salmonella and Q fever, which can be spread from sheep — if we mistreat our animals, we harm ourselves.

And when we ignore the damage to the environment, we inadvertently wipe out species that might have provided lifesaving medicine. As we destroy their environment, animals are forced into closer contact with humans, leading to the spread of COVID-19, monkeypox and so many other diseases. According to Cornell University, “It is estimated that approximately 75% of recently emerging infectious diseases affecting humans are diseases of animal origin.”

Moses said that the tribes had to care first and foremost for their children. Reuven and Gad said that the only way to truly care about their children is to also care about their animals and the environment.

Thanks to The Memory Palace for teaching me about Ruth Harkness, and Sidedoor for way too much information on the sex lives of pandas.

My current series on WebYeshiva is entitled, “Rebuilding After Destruction Through Text” and is live every Tuesday. You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar. Check out my website,
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