LEAFING THROUGH an old magazine published by Chicago's Brookfield Zoo, Vicki Croke came across the unlikely mention of a Manhattan socialite and dress designer. Ruth Harkness, she read, had undertaken an arduous expedition to the border between China and Tibet, beating a pack of male competitors in an unusual race. Harkness was the first person to bring a giant panda to the west. 'The whole thing sounded straight out of a Hollywood film,' Croke says of the article she read 12 years ago. 'But, incredibly, it was true. I looked for a book about Harkness, but couldn't find one. Then I asked all my contacts in the zoo world. But no one knew very much. I thought, 'How could this be, that no one knows about an American socialite who brought a giant panda back from China?' Then I realised I'd have to write about her myself if I wanted to satisfy my curiosity.' This month, Croke released The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China's Most Exotic Animal (Random House). Croke, 46, has covered pets and wildlife for more than a decade as the 'animal beat' columnist for the Boston Globe newspaper. She's also the author of The Modern Ark: The Story of Zoos - Past, Present and Future. Croke acknowledges that her second book, given her field, should have been about a four-footed creature, but in Harkness she found a human subject she couldn't resist. Her admiration for the intrepid female adventurer began after reading Harkness' 1938 memoir, The Lady and the Panda. Croke had ordered a second copy of the book for what seemed the exorbitant sum of US$52, but as soon as she opened the book, she stopped feeling guilty. 'I broke out in goose bumps and read the book from start to finish,' Croke says. 'Ruth was a remarkable person, unusually modern in her thinking and completely fearless. That may have been the first adventure story from that period that contained not a single bit of racism. Nothing was overlooked, which is astonishing.' But the memoir covered only one year of the party girl-turned explorer's life. 'Everything else was a mystery, but I had a million more questions - not just about her life before and after that book, but the year in China, as well,' Croke says. Gradually, like putting together the pieces of a puzzle, Croke began reconstructing Harkness' life. As she did, 'the story grew richer, more fantastical, and more moving'. The more the writer learnt about Harkness, the greater her admiration. 'Ruth couldn't stand arrogance,' she says. 'She had American-Indian ancestors and, while that was something that most people at that time would hide, she was proud of it. She was always a maverick and iconoclast. She never accepted any of society's rules, whatever they were and wherever they were. I never thought I was Ruth - she was much braver than I am - but I adored her, and for years she was my best pal.' Croke exudes vitality and confidence, good sense and a reassuring down-to-earthiness. That's why, when she says that 'I've had so many experiences that made me feel that this project was meant to be, that Ruth's spirit was guiding me', it sounds perfectly plausible. 'I discovered that other people had tried to get projects about Ruth off the ground, but without success,' Croke says. 'But things unfolded so easily for me that I couldn't help but feel directed - as if things were meant to come my way.' Providence seems to have been keeping more than an eye out for Croke's book even before she was sure it could be a book. Three years ago, Croke wrote an article for the Washington Post about Harkness' China expeditions. 'Then, what I had prayed for happened,' says Croke. 'I was contacted by Robin Perkins Ugurlu, the granddaughter of Ruth's best friend, Hazel Perkins Ugurlu, who had hundreds of letters Ruth had written during her China trips. Those letters were an astonishing record of Ruth's emotions and thoughts. I could never have found them on my own, and they were crucial. Without them it wouldn't have Ruth's voice, her insights and a window into her huge soul.' Then there was the time, just before leaving to join her parents in Florida for a holiday, that Croke impulsively Googled 'Su-lin Young'. Young was the glamorous sister-in-law of Quentin Young, Harkness' partner on her first expedition with whom she'd had a passionate affair. (Quentin's dashing older brother, Jack, a well-known big game hunter and sportsman, had led numerous other western explorers into the Tibetan borderlands and other parts of Asia.) The Google search was one Croke had done 'a million times before', but this time a newspaper story about a Su-lin Young in Spruce Pines, North Carolina, popped up. Croke called directory information, found Young's number and before she knew it, was engaged in an animated discussion with the woman for whom the first panda to reach America was named. 'Not only was Su-lin happy to help me, but she invited me to come to her 90th birthday party taking place in just a few days,' the author says. As it happened, Spruce Pines was only a few hours' drive from where Croke's parents were staying. 'As soon as I got to Florida, my mother and father loaded me into their Lincoln next to their poodle and, before I knew it, I was face to face with someone I had no idea was still alive, let alone in the United States,' Croke says. If Croke feels a protective spirit hovering over her book, she shouldn't be surprised. As is clear from The Lady and the Panda, Harkness was something of a spiritual seeker and her greatest sense of peace seems to have come when she was in the remotest parts of China. 'Ruth had a spiritual awakening in China,' the writer says. 'She and her dead husband, Bill, both sought out a kind of mysticism that was missing from their lives in America. In those days, it was about rules and she wasn't into that. In China, she began to feel what she called a 'spiritual tug'. She loved the spiritual freedom that she saw in China, that people could do a little Buddhism and a little Taoism, that you didn't have to go to a house of worship. Religion was an everyday thing.' Harkness' 'rebirth' actually began in Hong Kong, Croke says. 'When she arrived in Hong Kong, she felt in some inexplicable way that she had come home,' she says. 'She wrote about going up to the Peak, standing on a lawn with the galaxy of stars above her and below, the water with fishermen fishing in the bay by twilight. It was a pivotal moment for her.' Three years ago, when Croke sought to retrace Harkness' steps during her first expedition, she went up to the Peak at night to see if she could find the spot where Harkness had stood. But 'there were so many possibilities that I didn't get very far'. Along with Croke on that trip were a group of friends that included Harkness' niece, Mary Lobisco, Perkins Ugurlu, Su-Lin and Jack Young's daughter, Jolly. 'We took a boat partly up the Yangtze, then hired a fleet of jeeps to go up into the mountains between Tibet and China,' Croke says. 'The terrain is remarkably unchanged from the 1930s, but of course, we covered in two hours what it took Ruth two days to cross.' The group was able to locate several of Harkness' favourite spots and, in one of them, a serene valley where she often wrote. They buried a container of Harkness' ashes that Lobisco had brought from Pennsylvania. Then the group headed over to the Wolong panda reserve, only a few kilometres away. There, Croke finally had an opportunity to meet a panda up close. 'When I stroked the fur of the panda in Wolong, it was an unforgettable moment,' she says. 'I felt so alive and so conscious of my connection to both the panda and to Ruth. So often when I was writing, I would look up to the mantle where I had a picture of Ruth and I could almost see her sitting in front of me, cigarette in hand, cheering me on. When I touched the panda, I felt her spirit there, as well.'