Beginning with a panda cub carried into the United States in the arms of fashion designer Ruth Harkness in 1936, Americans have been fascinated by giant pandas for decades. We fawned over Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, the 18-month-old pandas who were gifts from the Chinese government during the Nixon Administration, and flocked by the millions to the San Diego Zoo to see Basi and Yuan Yuan when they were on loan from China. Today only four zoos in the United States house giant pandas: the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington DC, the San Diego Zoo, the Memphis Zoo, and Zoo Atlanta in Georgia.
Giant pandas are classified as endangered, plagued by habitat loss and a very low birthrate. Fortunately for the world’s panda populations, the survival rate in captivity has grown from about 30% in the 1960s to about 90% today.
About half of all panda pregnancies produce twins. In the wild, the mother will usually focus her milk supply and energy on the stronger of the twins, abandoning the other. In captivity, zoo keepers work hard to help the mother care for two babies. Even with a concentrated effort, it’s not uncommon to lose one of the twin newborns. Ending this paragraph on a positive note, Bei Bei (the surviving twin recently born in Washington DC) made his debut at the National Zoo in January and Zoo Atlanta is home to the only set of panda twins in the United States.
About a decade after Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived in Washington DC, the Chinese government evolved from giving pandas as gifts to loaning them for a substantial fee (think seven figures). That means that even pandas born in captivity here in the United States are technically Chinese “citizens” rather than American.