A Ling-Ling and gained an Eoraptor.Say what?Days...

WE LOST

February 13, 1993

WE LOST a Ling-Ling and gained an Eoraptor.

Say what?

Days after the natural death of Ling-Ling, the beloved female panda at the National Zoo in Washington, came the announcement that archaeologists had discovered what they believe to be the granddaddy of dinosaurs. They dubbed the dog-sized skeleton "Eoraptor," meaning "dawn stealer"; they surmise it lived at the break of time and depended more on stealth than size to capture food.

How panda bears relate to dinosaurs is simply this: We adore them. Ling-Ling wasn't any bamboo-snacking bear; she was the feisty princess of a fanged royal couple.

Her relationship with the National Zoo's male panda, Hsing-Hsing, and her failed pregnancies were monitored breathlessly by Washingtonians and, to some extent, the nation at large. The Panda House at the D.C. zoo isn't a pen; it's a shrine, complete with offerings from visitors and the crates in which the bears, the only giant pandas in the U.S., were shipped from China as a gift to then-President Nixon 21 years ago.

When it comes to human affections, dinosaurs are also favorites of the animal kingdom -- past and present members included. While education and business leaders lament students' aversion science, toddlers master the names of dinosaurs before they know their addresses.

It's no coincidence that the Maryland Science Center experienced its best November and December ever while featuring a show starring robotic dinosaurs. The Smithsonian Institution had immense success in 1989 when the national museum charged the public, for the first time, to see an exhibit of animated dinosaurs. After the show moved on, the Smithsonian kept the related "Dino-store," which continues to have the highest sales per square foot of any shop in its system.

Few creatures, living or otherwise, are so marketable as dinosaurs. Public broadcasting is having a great run with its "Barney" show for kids, about an imaginary tyrannosaur. Network TV has fared well with its own comedy about a puppet clan of dinosaurs headed by a Ralph Cramden-esque carnivore. One suspects that the resultant barrage of toy and clothing spin-offs has been exceeded on Earth only by the storm of meteors thought to have obliterated dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Surely the fact that they're extinct embellishes dinosaurs with a storybook-science fiction quality. Our fascination with dinosaurs, which will get another jolt when Steven Spielberg releases his movie based on the hit novel "Jurassic Park," isn't likely to diminish since new revelations are ever emerging. Only recently did scientists surmise that birds are dino-descendants. You "roast dinosaur at Thanksgiving and eat dinosaur nuggets at McDonald's," one researcher told National Geographic.

So while we mourn the death of a panda, let us marvel at the birth of a new dinosaur. Have a cigar.

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