They were cute, they were smelly and they were riding in the back of the passenger compartment of a CP Air flight.

Their names were Qing Qinq and Quan Quan and they were a pair of giant pandas coming to stay at the Metro Toronto Zoo for a 100-day visit, starting in July 1985.

En route to Toronto, they rode in aluminum crates while passengers frequently stopped by to watch them snack on bamboo shoots and sleep.

Some passengers took pictures of the pandas during the flight and even had their children pose alongside the crates.

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The Toronto zoo first hosted giant pandas back in 1985. (Rosanne Mac Cormick)

Were you there?

Did you see the giant pandas back in 1985? Do you have stories or pictures you want to share? Send them to tonews@cbc.ca. We'd love to see them and post them on our site. 

Toby Styles was doing public relations for the zoo when the pandas came over that summer and he was on the plane with them.

As soon as the plane took off from Hong Kong, he said the people started streaming back to get a look at the pandas.

"There was a stampede to the back! Everybody wanted to go see the pandas," Styles told CBC News in a recent interview.

The captain told them that not everyone could be back there at the same time.

So instead, it was decided that people would come back row by row to take a look.

"At first I didn’t know what to think, but they're so cute and I've been watching them sleeping and waking up, eating and sleeping," a Vancouver teacher named Maureen Paetkau told the Toronto Star, after seeing the pandas up close on the plane.

But not everyone on the plane was impressed.

"Some people … didn’t even come back and look," Styles said. "'Oh yeah, pandas? Yeah, big deal.'"

Like 'the Mona Lisa'

On the ground in Toronto, Ron Barbaro, then the zoo's chairman, said hosting the pandas was "a thrill" that was comparable to a gallery hanging a great Renaissance masterwork.

 

"To have the rarest, most loved animal in the world on exhibit in your place for a while, it’s like the art gallery having the Mona Lisa, it’s a marvelous feeling," he told CBC's The Journal on July 16, 1985, just hours after the pandas arrived.

And it wasn't just zoo officials who were excited.

The same day Barbaro spoke to The Journal, the zoo had to deliver unfortunate news to a U.S. couple who showed up a few days early.

"We had a sad situation today where a couple drove all the way from Cleveland, they’d heard it on the U.S. network and drove all the way and turned around back. And that's not nice, but what can you do?" Barbaro said.

When the exhibit opened to the public on July 20 — its ceremonial opening was actually the day before — there were long lines of people wearing then-stylish short-shorts, striped socks and snap-back baseball caps a half-hour before people were allowed to come in.

A young boy named Scott in a panda-head hat told Steve Paikin, then a reporter for CBC Toronto, that day that he wished he could have a panda as a pet.

"Have you seen those claws?" Paikin asked the boy.

"Yup," said the youngster, who was nonetheless still interested in having a panda live with him.

Paikin, who is now host of The Agenda on TVO, responded to the posting of today's story with this Twitter message:

The zoo had lots of panda merchandise on sale that summer, including posters, buttons, mugs and stuffed animals.

The CBC then reported that admission was going up by $1 for adults, and 50 cents for students and seniors. But the price change didn't stop people from coming out.

Panda memories

Rosanne Mac Cormick was one of the hundreds of thousands of people who went to see the pandas that year.

"My kids still remember it," she told CBC News in a recent telephone interview.

She and her two young children packed a lunch and rode a bus from their home in central Toronto out to the zoo.

They spent an hour at the exhibit, watching as Qing Qinq and Quan Quan lumbered about.

At one point, Mac Cormick said it was almost like one of the pandas was posing for her when she snapped a picture with her Minolta camera.

"They are just so unbelievably cute," said Mac Cormick.

Robert Taylor wasn't as lucky when he went to the zoo to see the pandas with his wife and son on a Sunday in September 1985.

"There was a large crowd in the viewing area. The pandas appeared to be sleeping," Taylor told CBC News in an email, explaining the story behind two photos he has of pandas lying about.

"Hopefully, with the pandas in Toronto for a longer time, they will become more comfortable and more active," he added.

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The type of pictures that people got depended on what the pandas were up to. Sometimes they were playful, other times they weren't so active. (Courtesy of Rebecca Cheng)

When Rebecca Cheng saw them, all they appeared to care about was what they were munching on.

"I remember them being very busy, intent and total focus on their chewing their bamboos," she told CBC News in an email. "I was thinking, is that all they do?"

The demand for the pandas kept up throughout their short stay in Toronto. Barbaro even took a trip to China to try to extend the visit.

Alas, it was not to be.

The giant pandas went back to China in good shape. They each gained weight during their time in Toronto and were sent home with more than 100 pounds of bamboo to feed them on the plane.

"They're healthy, they're frisky, their coat is just in beautiful shape," Barbaro told a CBC Toronto reporter at the close of the visit.

With files from the CBC's Marivel Taruc