When giant pandas Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, a gift from the People’s Republic of China, arrived at Washington’s National Zoological Park in 1972, the curious queued up for hours to glimpse them. Some, like Barbara Bingham, then a Silver Spring, Md. teenager, were frustrated. “The line stretched all the way to the elephant house,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Forget it,’ and went home.” The pandas are still the zoo’s most popular attraction, but now they wait for Barbara instead of the other way around.
Bingham, 25, is an animal keeper at the zoo, and for the past five years she has been one of four people assigned to care for its black-and-white celebrities. Although she describes her $23,000-a-year job as “basically feeding and cleaning,” Barbara knows it is a plum position and marvels at how she “just sort of fell into it.”
The daughter of a naval engineer, Barbara dreamed of becoming a veterinarian as a child, and after graduating from high school in 1973 she landed a job raising calves and milking cows at the Food and Drug Administration’s veterinary medical research center in Beltsville, Md. In 1976 she moved on to the zoo. In addition to the pandas, she now cares for such exotic species as bongos, oryxes and dorcas gazelles.
Barbara lives with her photographer husband, Brent, 28, in Silver Spring. They have no children, but Barbara has been closely involved with efforts, thus far unsuccessful, to mate Hsing with Ling. She also cared for Chia-Chia, the male panda sent by London’s Zoological Society to give Hsing some competition. When that ploy failed, it was Barbara who accompanied Chia on the plane back to England.
Hsing and Ling will try again next spring, and Barbara will be cheering them on. “It can be hard to stand by patiently,” she admits. “Sometimes you just want to climb into the cage and show them how to go about it.”