THOUSANDS flocked to see him during his quarter-century in the nation's capital, but he didn't have a nickel's worth of pork to hand out. The closest he got to politics was grassroots, but that was just to munch them. Yet Hsing-Hsing the panda, who was put to sleep Sunday, came to personify Washington more than all but a few of the humans elected to serve there.
Hsing-Hsing and his mate, Ling-Ling, who died in 1992, were the stars at the National Zoo, the generators of a small nation's gross national product in T-shirt and trinket sales. Their exalted status was evident from their home: Rare is the animal pavilion that includes items describing the inhabitants' mating troubles.
Perhaps Hsing-Hsing's death will energize the Smithsonian Institution's negotiations with China for another panda. The zoo, which does not charge admission, earlier rejected the loan price of $1 million a year. In Baltimore last weekend, another emotional animal drama unfolded. A spaniel mutt named Lucky was trapped for days beneath Pier Six at the Inner Harbor.
After his tale of woe attracted tourists and media, police in a boat eventually scooped him to safety.
For whatever reason, some animals, by virtue of their personalities or those that people bestow upon them, take on a human persona. Visitors wept and left flowers at the Washington zoo after learning of Hsing-Hsing's death. When a K-9 rescue dog was dying in Baltimore County years ago, the public donated thousands for his care.
Why some animals elicit greater compassion than a man, woman or child in a similar strait is hard to answer. It's clear, though, that some -- like Hsing-Hsing and Lucky -- touch us in very human ways.