Hsing-Hsing's panda gig is getting old Anniversary: Aging, as well as 25 years of a soap-opera existence in Washington, almost too much to bear.

April 17, 1997|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Hsing-Hsing the giant panda awakens before dawn, shambling around his house at the National Zoo as TV people set lights and cameras at the other end of the building for a live shot at some ungodly hour.

What now?

It's always something with these people. They want pictures, they want to do a show, they want to do an examination, they want some semen to ship someplace, they want to see mating and more mating. After 25 years you'd think a bear might get a break.

Not a chance. Here it was April 16, 1997, and 25 years has elapsed since the cubs Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling arrived in Washington from China. Twenty-five years, six presidents, countless zookeepers, one mate, several failed attempts at fatherhood and maybe 75 million visitors later, Hsing-Hsing is still hanging in. Still doing the whole adorable bear shtick -- the sitting up with a carrot in each paw, the contented bamboo chomping, the rolling down the grassy hill.

An amazing record, seeing as how most pandas don't make it past 20. All right, he's got a touch of arthritis and sometimes suffers eye inflammations. And yes, he was diagnosed this month with testicular cancer, which his doctor, Lucy Spelman, is confident will be corrected surgically in a few weeks. All in all, at 26 years -- roughly equivalent to a 75-year-old man -- he's in fine shape to celebrate a quarter-century of panda-mania in America.

This calls for a ceremony.

The camera guys are first on the scene, trailing dignitaries, public relations people, reporters, zoo visitors armed with an assortment of Canons, Kodaks, Toshibas. By the time the proceedings begin the enclosure railing is jammed. Hsing-Hsing lumbers down from the back wall toward the center of his yard, thus delighting the crowd. But wait a minute. As soon as the

master of ceremonies says "Ladies and gentlemen, we'd like to get started," the 230-pound bear ambles back up the hill, past the willows and the lawn furniture and out of sight. The only giant panda in America east of the Mississippi River has for the moment vanished.

"Start without me," he seems to be saying.

Hsing-Hsing, pronounced shing-shing, is quite an expressive panda, people say.

"When you learn to read him you get to know what he wants," says his keeper, Brenda Morgan, who has been taking care of Hsing-Hsing for six years.

At the moment he seems to want a little privacy. And who could blame him? In the last 25 years his entire life has been one long Ricki Lake Show. The poor guy and his now deceased mate, Ling-Ling, couldn't make a move in a sexual sense without it turning into a media event.

"BREEDING ATTEMPTS FAIL ... ZOOKEEPERS RESORT TO ARTIFICIAL INSEMINATION ... PANDAS MATE AT LAST ... LING-LING PREGNANCY A FALSE ALARM ... PANDA SEMEN SHIPPED TO MEXICO CITY ZOO ... WASHINGTON PANDA SEMEN A DUD."

Years of hope and despair played out in the headlines. Between July 21, 1983, and Sept. 1, 1989, Ling-Ling gave birth to five cubs, all of which were either stillborn or died within minutes or days. Zookeepers anxiously awaited good news in light of the rapidly diminishing world panda population, now estimated at about 1,000 in the wild, 120 or so in zoos.

Such news never came. Ling-Ling died of heart failure at 23 in December 1992, leaving Hsing-Hsing alone in the spotlight.

nTC And now the spotlight was on full blast.

Hsing-Hsing missed the first speech by McKinley Hudson, the deputy director of the zoo, who recalled the "heady times and sad times" as the pandas attempted to breed. The bear also missed Sydney Butler, executive director of the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, who actually said, "Let us not just remember what we do for pandas, but what pandas do for us."

Nobody thought to add, "Ich bin ein panda."

It was getting on toward 11 a.m. when I. Michael Heyman, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, stepped to the podium, extolling the virtues of the panda. He said they are "beguiling, charming, adorable" animals, and that was very nice. He wondered aloud what future generations would think of us if we did not save these splendid creatures, and that was very nice. It was all very nice, but it was getting on 11 a.m., meaning Hsing-Hsing had not eaten for three hours.

And it was time for a feeding. And Hsing-Hsing likes his feedings on time.

When he gets really impatient, his keeper says, he starts rolling ,, his head around or making snuffling noises.

He did not do this. He did stroll down to listen to Heyman's flattering remarks while sitting in a shallow wading pool. Then he returned to his house up the hill, perhaps wondering how lunch preparations were going.

With Hsing-Hsing safely penned up (despite their cuddly appearance, pandas can be violent) Morgan brings down a bundle of bamboo branches and a pan of cereal gruel consisting of rice, honey, and vitamin supplements. Chris Broda- Bahm, who runs a zoo education program, brings a fat-free cake she baked from muffin mix, blueberries and vitamin supplement, garnished with a sprig of bamboo.

And for the rest of the morning on into early afternoon, Hsing-Hsing eats cake and bamboo and carrots and gruel. He sits in the shade of a willow on a balmy spring day, relishing a moment in the waning years of life.

Pub Date: 4/17/97

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