When Margaret Thatcher Refused to Share a Plane With a Panda

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Over the 11 years and 209 days Margaret Thatcher served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, she developed a reputation for her no-nonsense approach to politics. (She wasn’t dubbed the “Iron Lady” for nothing.) Though she regularly punched above her weight in matters of diplomacy, it seems that there was one opponent she refused to even step into the ring with: an adorable giant panda named Chia-Chia.

As CNN reports, newly declassified documents revealed that in 1981, Lord Zuckerman—president of the London Zoological Society—asked Thatcher’s staffers if the PM would be willing to share her U.S.-bound Concorde flight with the giant panda, who was being loaned to the Smithsonian Institution in order to mate with a female panda at the organization’s Washington, D.C. zoo—a move that Zuckerman saw as a “demonstration of the special relationship” between the United States and England. But Thatcher wasn’t biting, and didn’t mince words.

After receiving a note about the request from her private secretary, Thatcher laid out her response in bright blue felt-tip pen:

"I am not taking a panda with me. Pandas and politicians are not happy omens!"

She later added that, “Lord Z knows more about pandas than I do—I am sure he can arrange these things.”

The document was one of several that were released on Friday by the National Archives, and not the only time Thatcher expressed a seeming disdain for pandas. A year after the shared flight request was denied, Lord Zuckerman had another idea, and spoke to cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong about it:

“As it turns out the female of [the] pair [brought back by Heath from China] is highly unlikely ever to breed,” Armstrong wrote. “London Zoo would clearly like to have a fertile female and, in due course, a baby Panda. I think that Lord Zuckerman hopes that, if the prime minister were to be offered a female giant panda for the British people she might feel able to accept it.”

The request was passed on to Thatcher with a handwritten note from yet another official: “Prime minister. A bit passé, but no doubt you would not look a gift horse, or even a panda in the mouth?”

Thatcher’s response was swift and decided: “Yes, I would. The history of pandas … is unlucky.”