For a giant panda, 23 is a venerable age, so it was hardly a shock to her keepers that Ling-Ling was found dead in her cage on Dec. 30. But she had captivated Americans for more than 20 years, and her death—of heart failure—was like the loss of a friend.
She came to the zoo in 1972, a symbol of seismic changes in the world order. Richard Nixon had gone to China, the first American President ever to do so, ending almost 25 years of diplomatic isolation for the People's Republic. China responded, in part, by presenting 3-year-old Ling-Ling and a prospective mate, Hsing-Hsing, 2, to the people of the U.S. Panda frenzy ensued. In the beginning, visitors stood in line for hours just to spend one minute in front of their cage.
The two pandas, crotchety loners in their natural habitat, the bamboo forests of central China, turned out to be less than a loving couple. "She was very independent and rather cantankerous with Hsing-Hsing," says Lisa Stevens, head of the panda collection at the zoo. "She had a feisty character and harassed him relentlessly."
It was no surprise, given the obvious personality clash, the two never succeeded in providing the pitter-patter of little pandas that zoo officials had devoutly hoped for. Hsing-Hsing's romantic ineptitude led to a fruitless mating with Chia-Chia, the London Zoo's male panda. Finally, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing produced five full-term cubs, all of which died shortly after birth because of abnormal immune systems. (There still is some hope of offspring. During the autopsy on Ling-Ling, officials extracted 100 or so eggs that they hope to fertilize and implant in a surrogate mother.)
Hsing-Hsing, reports Stevens, looked for his mate the morning after her death but has since followed his normal routine. "Pandas don't interact very much," she says. Maybe not with each other, but they do strike a chord with humans.