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Ruth Harkness: Fashion Designer Turned Conservationist

By anna on Mar 15, 2014 1:07 PM
Ruth_Elizabeth_Harkness_and_Su_Lin.jpgAmerican fashion designer Ruth Harkness (1900-1947) stunned the world when she brought a live baby panda to the United States in 1936. Harkness, considered a party girl, accomplished something other experienced explorers and hunters tried and failed to do for almost one hundred years. Born in 1900 and raised in Philadelphia by a family that struggled to make ends meet, Ruth tried a variety of careers and educational pursuits before moving to New York City and becoming a fashion designer. She lived a cosmopolitan lifestyle for a woman of her time, drinking, partying, smoking, and living with before eventually marrying wealthy heir William Harvest Harkness. William was one of the many explorers who tried, and failed, in the quest to transport a live panda out of China. After his untimely death to throat cancer in 1935, Ruth took on his expedition, vowing to succeed where he nd so many others failed. Told she had a million to one chance in succeeding, Ruth nonetheless travelled thousands of miles to a foreign country, organized and led an expedition into one of the most remote corners of the world, and came home with a tiny, fragile baby panda. How did Ruth, a Manhattan party girl, manage where so many others failed? Luck, perserverance, and by packing two all-important items - a glass baby bottle and powdered formula. Her expedition arrived in the wild mountains of China during the birthing season (unbeknownst to them) and managed to locate a tiny infant left by its mother in a tree. The fact the panda Ruth found was an infant made all of the difference. Transporting a 5 pound baby who could drink powdered formula was far easier than an adult specimen weighing 300-plus pounds and only able to eat China's native bamboo. Breaking the odds and exceeding even her own wildest expectations, Ruth triumphantly returned to America with her baby panda, named Su Lin. The newspapers and media of the time went wild, and baby Su Lin was the darling of the nation. Besides bringing home the first live panda, Ruth's expedition also pioneered modern conservation. Little Su-Lin so entranced the American public that the old "huntin'" and "shootin" methods of other expeditions began to seem distasteful. With Su-Lin cradled in her arms, not caged or leashed, Ruth showed the world Su-Lin was an individual with her own unique personality. Did this not then mean other animals also deserved respect and humane treatment? Su-Lin went on to live at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois and Ruth successfully brought a second panda back to the United States, among many other excellent adventures. Despite her lack of experience, Ruth's character, courage, and commitment led her to take on the adventure of a lifetime. Ruth and her panda Su Lin made history, but more importantly they also gave light to a nation in the midst of the Great Depression and helped bring awareness to a gentle and mysterious species fighting for its existence. To learn more about Ruth Harkness, read Baby Giant Panda , her travelogue about her expedition to find Su-Lin. Also read Vicki Constantine Croke's most excellent biography, The Lady and the Panda. Beth @ East

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