While the Grand Central Centennial celebration on February 1st was primarily dedicated to our beloved Terminal, we also took a few moments to remember the life of Edward Koch, who passed away earlier that morning. There are many ways that one can remember the late Ed Koch – as a congressman, as a mayor, as a consummate New Yorker, and even as a preserver of Grand Central (and if you’re as young as me, perhaps only as that judge on the People’s Court). But the thing that probably won’t come up in most people’s memories, however, are pandas. It certainly was not one of Koch’s most noteworthy accomplishments, but he did succeed in getting two pandas for New York City, if only for a few months.
As the story goes, Mayor Koch hosted Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang for lunch at Gracie Mansion in 1984. In a private moment, Koch requested two pandas from Ziyang, stating, “If I get two pandas, I’ll get re-elected.” Koch later attributed, in jest, his 1985 reelection to Zhao’s statement to the media, “It is possible that New York City will have two pandas.” The negotiations for the rare ursids was said to take, in total, seven years – and in April of 1987 two pandas finally arrived at JFK airport on a flight from Beijing.
For the next six months the two pandas, one male and one female, called the Bronx Zoo home. Ling Ling, the male, (not to be confused with the panda of the same name given to the US as a gift by China in 1972) was one and a half years old and weighed 119 pounds. The second panda, a female named Yong Yong, was 6 years old, and weighed 187 pounds. Yong Yong was on her second visit to the United States, she had previously been exhibited in California in 1982. After six months at the Bronx Zoo, the pair moved to Busch Gardens in Tampa, before returning to Beijing in April of 1988.
Panda at the Bronx zoo in 1987. Photo by Tony Savoca.
Now Mayor Koch and two adorable pandas certainly make a good story, but I’m sure you’re wondering how exactly this relates to trains. Apparently the pandas whipped everyone into quite a fervor – the zoo expected 1800 visitors would see them an hour – and not everyone would arrive by car. For those that opted for public transportation, Metro-North not only offered special tickets to the zoo, they printed special timetables as well. Appropriately printed in black and white ink, the timetables featured two pandas on the front, and included a map for getting to the zoo. The illustration of the pandas was done by Victor Chan, who was a graphic designer in Corporate Communications for Metro-North in the late ’80s.
Until I had found this timetable at a train show, I had no idea that there were ever special panda trains, or that the Bronx Zoo had ever had pandas. Pandas are always a top favorite in the animal kingdom for many, yet they are exceedingly rare – especially so in the United States. At this time, there are only 12 pandas in the entire country. So Koch’s temporary acquisition for the zoo was definitely a big deal. And these trains, and the timetables printed for them, may be some of the most interesting in Metro-North’s 30 year history.
For those curious about the fate of the two aforementioned pandas, both lived fairly long lives but are now deceased. Ling Ling was given as a gift to Japan in 1992, and resided in Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo. He died of heart failure in 2008 at the age of 22. Yong Yong spent the remainder of her life in China at various different zoos. She gave birth to ten cubs, and is the grandmother of Ya Ya, one of 12 pandas living in the US, residing at the Memphis Zoo. Yong Yong died at the Beijing Zoo in 2006, at the age of 25.