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Bear Cat, Wah, or Fire Fox? Red Pandas in the Library of Congress

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An entry from a Chinese dictionary with a small illustration of a red panda next to the Chinese text.
Zhonghua da zidian,” 中華大字典 1935 edition. Library of Congress Asian Division.

With their fluffy, multi-colored fur and alternatively lazy and playful personalities, red pandas already have their fair share of fans. And with the recent release of the Disney film “Turning Red,” this adorable—but endangered—creature has gained even more media exposure. Enjoy these red panda sightings from the Asian Division and elsewhere in the Library’s collections!

This first red panda can be found in the pages of the Zhonghua da zidian 中華大字典 (“Great Chinese Dictionary”), first published in 1915, under the heading for the character “bear” (xiong 熊). The Chinese term used here translates literally to “bear cat” (xiong mao 熊貓). The same word is still used in Chinese today, but typically with a prefix of “small” for the red panda and “large” for the giant panda.

Also known as the “lesser panda” or “fire fox” (among other names), red pandas inhabit an area that extends from the eastern Himalayas across Nepal, Bhutan, and northeast India to the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan in southwest China.

A map of China and bordering countries.
This map of China provides a view of the general location of the red panda’s habitat, which extends from the eastern Himalayas across Nepal, Bhutan, and northeast India to the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan in southwest China. United States Central Intelligence Agency, “China,” 1996. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Until the early 20th century, in English the word “panda” referred almost exclusively to this animal. When knowledge of the panda bear—another bamboo-loving mammal from Asia—spread to the English-speaking world, it came to be called the “giant panda” to distinguish it from the smaller “true panda.” Unlike the giant panda, however, the red panda is not a member of the bear family, Ursidae. It is actually the sole living species of its own family, Ailuridae, and a very distant relative of the raccoon.

This illustration from Samuel Goodrich’s “Illustrated Natural History of the Animal Kingdom,” originally published in 1861, demonstrates this usage of “panda,” as well as “wah,” another early name. As the text below the illustration notes, “It frequently utters a loud cry of ‘Wha! wha!’ whence one of its names.”

A black and white illustration of a red panda with a description that reads "The wah, or panda."
Samuel Goodrich, “Illustrated Natural History of the Animal Kingdom,” 1880. Library of Congress. A nearly identical version of this page from the 1859 edition can be viewed through HathiTrust.

The onomatopoeic name “wah” appears in an article from the 1906 issue of the Los Angeles Herald. The accompanying illustration features both “wah” and “cat bear,” a variation on the literal translation of the Chinese term described above.

An illustration of a red panda standing in a tree, with its hind legs on a lower branch and front legs on a higher branch.
Los Angeles Herald, 11 Nov. 1906. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

By the 1920s, Americans could see real red pandas in the nation’s capital. This 1927 Washington Times article marks the arrival of a “panda, or cat bear” to the Washington Zoo.

A black and white photograph of a red panda, with separate photos of two zebras on the left and an Andean condor on the right.
The Washington Times (Washington D.C.), 17 May 1927. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

Another example of a red panda in captivity can be found in the black and white photograph below. This photo lacks a clearly indicated location, but comes from the National Photo Company Collection, most of which dates to the period 1909-1932 and documents various aspects of life in Washington, D.C.

A black and white photograph of a red panda.
Panda” [1922], Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Red pandas have long been a fixture at the Washington Zoo, as reflected in the photograph of two baby “lesser pandas” born there in the summer of 1962.

A black and white photograph of two baby red pandas, both directly facing the camera.
The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 30 Sept. 1962. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

Whatever name they go by, red pandas remain fascinating creatures. Continued loss of habitat, however, threatens the future of the species. Conservation efforts, such as those outlined in the publications pictured below, are vital for their survival.

The covers of two publications, each featuring a color photograph of a red panda looking toward the camera.
Covers of two books acquired by the Library’s New Delhi Overseas Office in India. “Proceeding of Workshop on Red Panda Conservation in India: Past, Present and Future Darjeeling West Bengal” (Darjeeling: Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, 2010), and “Red Panda Conservation Action Plan for Langtang National Park and Buffer Zone Nepal, 2010-2014” (Kathmandu: Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation, Government of Nepal, 2010).

For questions or more information about any of the materials discussed in this post, please visit Ask a Librarian to contact a relevant subject specialist at the Library.

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Comments (3)

  1. I will now start thinking of our local raccoons as “American lesser pandas” — or perhaps “smoke foxes”. “Cat bear” could fit both species. Thank you for this evocative post about the true Red Pandas.

  2. Yes..American Lesser Panda, esp when raiding my garbage cans. Very funny.

  3. red pandas from 1825

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