Written By: Olivia B. Waxman
If anything could bring the gap between nations and ideologies, even at a time of tension and war, it just might be an adorable baby panda. But, even for a panda, such a task is far from easy.
Just look at Chi Chi.
As LIFE explained in its June 16, 1958, edition, which featured photos of 130-lb., 1.5-year-old Chi Chi, she had been acquired in Beijing by animal dealer Heini Demmer. From her cage in Frankfurt, Germany, she was then in the middle of what the magazine called “a small international trade crisis.” Zoos across the U.S. put in bids to acquire the rare creature, but a “U.S. embargo forbids all trade with China, and the Treasury Department refused to make Chi Chi an exception.” And on top of all of that, her keepers had run low on bamboo and had to try feeding her wheat and rice with sugar.
She ended up settling down halfway at the London Zoo, when the British bought her for $28,000. Because she’d been deemed “enemy goods” by the U.S., “British children can thank the Cold War that they are privileged to visit her,” LIFE joked in 1964.
But she continued to cause panda-monium throughout the 1960s. The London Zoo had been trying to set her up on a blind date with the only other captive panda living outside China at the time, An-An, who had been sent to the USSR as a token of Sino-Soviet friendship in 1959. (Both pandas were variably identified with and without their hyphens throughout the years, and An-An occasionally appeared as Ang-Ang.) But the Russians “frowned on any East-West fraternizing,” LIFE reported in the July 15, 1966, issue, so it took years to make the meeting happen. Eventually, the knowledge that panda rarity and the continuing Cold War would make it nearly impossible to acquire another panda from China, both sides agreed to temporarily put their differences aside for the sake of panda breeding.
However, despite living through the historic period of sexual revolution and women’s liberation that was the 1960s, it seemed as though Chi Chi could not care less about sex. The Nov. 11, 1966, issue of LIFE detailed the “honeymoon” in Moscow that was finally arranged for the 9½-year-old “spoiled” “spinster” and the 9-year-old “bachelor” panda who loved bubble baths. The attempt at inspiring a courtship was a disaster. “Unaware of the purpose of her visit, he flew at her in anger ‘like an arrow,’ as the Russians put it and bit her on the right side,” LIFE reported. “Though he behaved impeccably thereafter, Chi-Chi never forgave him.”
Though some humans at the time were making a conscious effort not to reproduce too much, in order to address fears about overpopulation, Chi Chi’s problem was a different one. And, in a strange twist, it turned out she was more interested in human males than male pandas. As her keeper at the London Zoo, Dr. Desmond Morris, told LIFE, “One night [during her trip to Moscow], Chi-Chi started bleating, a sure sign of interest. Imagine my surprise when we discovered she was bleating not at An-An, but at me. From that moment on, I knew it was all over. Chi-Chi was humanized.”
Or maybe Chi Chi was just more comfortable in her own digs. Two years later, An-An was allowed to pay a visit to Chi Chi in London. A photo spread in the Dec. 6, 1968, edition captured the two cavorting at one point in front of a crowd of up to 40,000 people, as the magazine reported. When she wasn’t chewing An-An’s ear, he could be seen climbing up and down poles in her enclosure. Their fling was only supposed to be just a little over two months long, but the Russians let their panda stay a while longer.
As LIFE put it, “Love might yet conquer all.”
Though the attempt to mate Chi Chi and An-An was ultimately unsuccessful, the international cooperation fostered by the animals did not pass unnoticed.
Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.