Hsing-Hsing, aging, ill, is given lethal injection

Mao gave panda to zoo after Nixon visited China

November 29, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Hsing-Hsing, the National Zoo's giant panda who for more than a quarter-century served as diplomat, research subject and sweet-natured delight to millions, died yesterday morning. Zookeepers gave the panda a lethal injection after deciding that irreversible kidney disease had made his life too painful to endure.

He was 28, an advanced age for a panda.

Hsing-Hsing and his longtime female denmate, Ling-Ling, who died in 1992, were gifts to the United States from Mao Tse-tung in commemoration of President Richard M. Nixon's ice-breaking trip to China in 1972. The animals came to symbolize a deepening but testy relationship between the world's most populous nation and its wealthiest.

The pandas mated frequently, on their own and with the aid of science, but left no survivors. They produced five cubs between 1983 and 1989, but none lived more than five days.

National Zoo officials said that Hsing-Hsing's health deteriorated markedly in the past week. He was unresponsive to his keepers, nearly blind, troubled with advanced arthritis and barely able to rouse himself to eat.

His final meal, on Saturday night, consisted of a large blueberry muffin, boiled yams, a bit of rice broth and some bamboo.

"Yesterday, after three very bad days, we decided to euthanize him," said Lisa Stevens, the zoo's associate curator for primates and pandas. "We feel an immense sadness as well as an immense emptiness, as empty as the Panda House is now."

From the first day that Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling were put on display in April 1972, when 20,000 people flocked to the zoo to see them, the animals were a huge draw. Zoo officials estimated that as many as 75 million visitors saw one or both animals during their long run in captivity.

Ling-Ling died Sept. 30, 1992, at age 23 of sudden heart failure. At the time, she was the oldest giant panda living in a zoo outside China. The life expectancy for giant pandas in the wild is 15 to 20 years.

With the death of Hsing-Hsing (pronounced Shing-Shing), five giant pandas remain in the United States -- a pair that arrived at Zoo Atlanta earlier this month and a pair with a female cub at the San Diego Zoo.

Officials at the zoo in Washington said they were negotiating with Beijing for pandas to replace Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling but could not meet China's price. Beijing is seeking $1 million a year for the loan of the animals; the National Zoo, part of the Smithsonian Institution, is unwilling to pay more than $250,000 a year because, unlike the zoos in Atlanta and San Diego, it does not charge admission.

Scientists are conducting a detailed necropsy on Hsing-Hsing. His skin and skeleton will be turned over to the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, which also has custody of his mate's remains. The bear's organs and tissues will remain at the zoo for study, officials said.

Zoologists estimate that 1,000 giant pandas survive in the wild, most in mountainous Central China, where they subsist almost entirely on a diet of bamboo. In addition, 130 pandas live in zoos, 16 of them outside China.

The empty Panda House at the National Zoo was open yesterday, but the entry bore a sign reading, "We regret to inform you that Hsing-Hsing died this morning, Sunday, November 28, 1999."

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