“Panda”monium at the National Zoo

Ling-Ling munches on her snack on her first day in the new Panda House at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, April 16, 1972. (Nixon Library)

Springtime in Washington, DC, makes people think of cherry blossoms—and pandas. While keepers and panda fans anxiously wait for signs that the National Zoo’s Mei Xiang may be expecting a cub, we remember the first pandas to live at the zoo.

President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in February 1972 opened diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries and was one of the most successful achievements of his administration. The result that sticks most keenly in the popular memory, though, is the arrival of two chubby black and white furry goodwill ambassadors—Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing.

When pandas’ arrival date was set, President Nixon asked First Lady Pat Nixon to head up the delegation to welcome the pandas to the National Zoo. Listen to his March 13 telephone call to her from the Nixon Library.

Mrs. Nixon had been captivated by the pandas at the zoo in Beijing and was delighted to officially accept the nation’s own pair.

On April 20, 1972, she officially accepted the gift of the People’s Republic of China and declared, “I think ‘panda-monium’ is going to break out at the zoo.” She was right. Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were the top attractions at the zoo until their deaths in in the 1990s.

The video clip below is excerpted from film shot at the zoo ceremony. After Mrs. Nixon thanks the Chinese delegation, it’s on to the newly built panda habitat. (There is no sound during the indoor portion of the clip.) As you watch, notice that the event seems very low key compared to Presidential ceremonies today.

Just in case you were wondering, the United States gave China a pair of musk oxen, named Milton and Matilda, from the San Francisco zoo in exchange.

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