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Adelaide 'Su-Lin' Young, 96; explorer's name was given to 1st giant panda in U.S.

June 12, 2008

By Patricia Sullivan
The Los Angeles Times
June 10, 2008

Adelaide "Su-Lin" Young, the first American woman to explore the
rugged Himalayas in the 1930s and for whom the first giant panda
brought to the United States was named, died April 17 of
cardiopulmonary arrest at a home-care facility in the Bay Area
community of Hercules. She was 96.

An unlikely explorer, the pampered and glamorous daughter of a New
York nightclub owner probed the arduous territory of southwest China
as a newlywed in 1934. She was accompanied by her husband,
brother-in-law and an ever-changing cast of local porters. She shot a
bear for food, preserved botanical specimens for the American Museum
of Natural History and slept with a loaded pistol under her pillow as
protection against bandits.

Although her only previous outdoor experience was as a summer camp
counselor in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Young adapted. She
learned to gather her own food, cook over a campfire and politely
turn down invitations to visit flea-infested yurts. Bathing or
brushing her teeth drew curious onlookers; trying to discard tattered
clothing was useless, one of her daughters said, because the group's
porters kept retrieving it and putting it in her saddlebags. As the
sole woman in the company of men, she was an object of fascination
and was considered a foreigner by the native Chinese.

"In Tibet, Su-Lin had sometimes stayed in yak-hair tents, drinking
yak-butter tea, warmed over a yak-dung fire," Vicki Croke wrote in
"The Lady and the Panda" (2005). "Everything she ate was suffused
with stray strands of yak hair. The smell of it all was unfortunately
unforgettable to her."

Early in the trip, she shot a large bear but almost immediately
expressed regret.

"It wasn't just the killing of the bear that upset her," said one of
her three daughters, Jolly King of Honolulu. "After she did it, she
realized [the bear] had two cubs. It was still disturbing to her in
her mid-80s."

As a result of the incident, she persuaded her family to stop
collecting dead animal specimens and instead bring live exotic
animals back to museums and zoos.

After the expedition, the trio withdrew to Shanghai, where Young
worked as a reporter for several newspapers, including the China
Journal and the North China Daily News. There she met Ruth Harkness,
another American woman, who captured, named and transported the first
giant panda to the United States.

The first panda came to share Young's name, Croke wrote, because when
Harkness saw it curled up on Young's sheepskin coat, she immediately
thought of Su-Lin, a name that can mean "a little bit of something
very cute." Young, Croke wrote, was a small woman, "beautiful and
vivacious . . . exuberant and kind."

Su-Lin lived at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago for many years, and the
body is preserved at Chicago's Field Museum. Another Su-Lin, born in
2005 at the San Diego Zoo, also bears Young's name.

After the expedition, Young lived in and was evacuated from Shanghai,
Beijing and Nanking during World War II. She was a disc jockey in
Taiwan, a suburban Washington homemaker for two years in the 1950s,
an employee of the Social Security Administration in San Francisco in
the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a retiree in Spruce Pine, N.C.
She returned to the San Francisco area in 2003.

Young, a native New Yorker, attended Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga.,
and held a series of "daring" jobs during the Depression, her
daughters said, including serving tea on a transatlantic cruise ship
and working as a cigarette girl in her father's nightclub. The second
job lasted but a day when she naively asked another employee to watch
her box of money and smokes while she visited the ladies' room; both
had disappeared when she returned.

"She was very determined, very self-reliant, very image-conscious,"
said another daughter, Jackie Wan of Hercules. "She had to be dressed
perfectly, every hair in place, and she fit in everywhere she went."

In 2001, Young was honored at the Memphis Zoo as one of three
explorers who opened the East to the West.

Her marriage to Jack Young ended in divorce.

In addition to her two daughters, survivors include another daughter,
Jocelyn Fenton of Dallas; two sisters; a brother; two grandchildren
and a great-granddaughter.

Young rarely talked about her early life to her children until King
found 300 photos of the 1934 expedition in an old photo album.

"It wasn't considered acceptable behavior at the time," King said.
"It wasn't until she started getting interviewed in the 1990s that
she really opened up about it."

She pretended to shrug off having the first American panda as her
namesake, "but the first thing she'd do was show people pictures,"
King said. "Bottom line: She was thrilled."
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