The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China’s Most Exotic Animal
By Vicki Constantine Croke. Random House, 2009, 402 pp.
In the 1930s, the adventurers who sought to capture wild animals—either dead, for natural history museums, or alive, for zoos—were mainly young men from wealthy, upper-class families. Ruth Harkness did not fit into this group: she was a party-loving New York dress designer with no trekking experience, she wasn’t rich, and, most exceptionally, she was a woman. But she was determined to go to the Chinese-Tibetan border to complete her late husband’s unfulfilled mission: to bring a living giant panda back to the United States. And against very long odds, she succeeded.
Although once celebrated—and still respected by naturalists and zoologists—Harkness was a little-known figure when Vicki Constantine Croke first heard of her. In her preface, Croke, who has written about animals as a Boston Globe
columnist and in her books, says that she felt an immediate bond with the explorer, whose respect for animals set her well ahead of her time. Awed by Harkness’s accomplishment, she decided to revive her story.
It’s an engrossing tale, set against the backdrop of a dramatic era. (more…)