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Nothing Lesser About These Animals

Out of the shadows of their back-and-white namesakes, red pandas emerge as charismatic creatures in their own right.

By Valerie May

Consider the panda. Did you just picture a big, black-and-white bear? People do. Yet the animal under our consideration today is the original panda: a fuzzy, red, cat-size critter with a fox-like face and a long, bushy, ringed tail. It was known as a panda decades before anyone applied the same label to giant pandas. The giant panda went on to fame and fortune while the red panda has lived a more humble existence.

Untangling the story of that shared name is something of a scientific whodunit. A shortened, and generally accepted, version goes as follows: Westerners exploring the Himalayas first identified and named the original panda in 1829. Its unusual food source, bamboo, was noted as a distinctive attribute.

Decades later, in 1869, Westerners observed a large bear in the same region. Because it also was a bamboo-eater, they dubbed it the giant panda. That left the original panda needing an adjective of its own. So it became the red panda. Some people call it the lesser panda, a moniker sure to irk the animal’s fans. As one Zoo biologist points out, “There’s nothing lesser’ about them.”

This bit of linguistic recycling also fostered generations of confusion. It seemed logical to conclude that two animals that shared a name and a diet were kissing cousins. But they are not. In fact, scientists place the red panda in its own family,Ailuridae, distinct from raccoons (which red pandas resemble) and bears. French zoologist Frederic Cuvier awarded its species name, Ailurus fulgens, meaning shining or fire-colored cat. He also described it as “quite the most handsome mammal in existence.” Some scientists refer to the red panda as a living fossil, since it has no close taxonomic relatives, and its nearest fossil ancestors lived three or four million years ago.

red panda on tree limb

(Ann Batdorf/NZP)

On Asia Trail

To meet this small, arboreal mammal, I strolled along Asia Trail and dropped into the panda house. There I found one of the Zoo’s most charming families: Shama (female), Tate (male), and their two female cubs, Damini and Pili. At that point, the cubs were three months old. (Ed. note: At press time, the family had moved to the red pandas’ outdoor enclosure on Asia Trail.)

Shama struck me as a beautiful and improbable creature, charming in her demeanor and behavior. She snuggled cozily on a perch, her plump legs and raccoonlike tail dangling below her. Her whitewhiskered, fuzzy face gazed outward, and pointed ears topped her head. Reddish brown “tear tracks” extended from the corners of her eyes to the edges of her mouth. Chestnut fur covered her rounded belly, blending to black on her legs. She seemed a perfect blend of parts from a raccoon, a cat, a bear, and a fox.

I watched as one of the keepers entered the red pandas’ enclosure, to engage in “touch training” with Shama. The keeper offered her grapes and apple slices, which she delicately nibbled with a gentle mouth, standing on her hind legs to follow the keeper around the enclosure. She ambled with an awkward and endearing wobble,  with her babies alert to her every movement. It was a captivating performance, and zoogoers watched with oohs and ahs, peppering the FONZ volunteer interpreter with questions.

red panda eating

(Jessie Cohen/NZP)

No Easy Answers

One of the most common questions people ask about an animal is whether it is an herbivore or a carnivore. For red pandas, the answer is “both.” They are classified as carnivores, yet their diet is 85 percent bamboo.

“Even though they are carnivores, they have an herbivore mentality,” says Sarah Glass, coordinator of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) for red pandas. “They don’t have to do a lot of problem-solving in their lives because they live in their food [i.e., vegetation]. Not like a bobcat, for instance, who has to hunt to live.” And when frightened, red pandas typically respond with flight rather than fight.

This placid approach to life—which goes hand in hand with a low-calorie, and therefore low-energy, diet—helps shape the laid-back persona red pandas sometimes display in zoos. Don’t be fooled, though. Red pandas at the Zoo have caught and eaten small birds and rodents in their outdoor enclosure, reports keeper Stacey Tabellario. “They really have a good set of daggers on their hands and in their mouths as well,” she says.

Red pandas are shy and elusive in the wild, with the result that these animals have never been extensively studied in their native habitat, which includes the Himalayas, the high mountains of northern Myanmar (Burma), and parts of Nepal, India, and China.

The challenge of studying red pandas in the wild also makes it difficult to assess how well the species is faring. “It is almost impossible to make an educated guess,” says Miles Roberts, a retired National Zoo wildlife biologist and acclaimed red panda expert. “They live in remote, hard-to-get-to regions and are highly secretive. You could walk right by one and have no idea; they blend into the scenery so completely. It’s very hard to conduct the kind of comprehensive research required to really understand how they are affected in the wild by things like habitat destruction.”

“What we do know,” says Roberts, is that “they have the perfect profile for extinction in the wild. They are a highly specialized kind of animal. They breed slowly; they mature slowly. They are a prime candidate to be the first to go as habitat is destroyed.” The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists red pandas as vulnerable to extinction.

red panda

(Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

Panda Population Boom

Red pandas’ uncertain status in the wild makes all the more exciting—and important—the National Zoo’s success at breeding them. The latest healthy cubs, at both Rock Creek and Front Royal, are the most recent link to the Zoo’s long tradition of raising red pandas. It’s fruit from the heady days when the Zoo had the continent’s largest population of red pandas, wrote the book on their care and handling, and established breeding pairs at zoos across the country.

Let’s step back in time and look at the pioneering work done by Roberts and other Zoo researchers in the 1970s and ’80s. Roberts began his Zoo career as an animal keeper, and two of his early charges were red panda cubs born at the zoo in 1972. “I started collecting data on the growth and development of those babies,” he says, “and we kept having babies from that pair. Then we started thinking of developing a breeding program. At that point, zoos were just beginning to think of how to sustain animals without getting them from the wild.”

The Zoo’s red panda population exploded. “We were the only zoo having consistent success,” says Roberts. “We applied ourselves to figuring out the best combinations to sustain our population without inbreeding. We really strived to understand what makes a panda tick.”

“Things grew very quickly,” Roberts continues. “We had over 100 cubs born in the ’70s and ’80s. At any given point we had a dozen pairs or trios in cages all over the zoo.” And in 1975, the Zoo opened its research center in Front Royal, providing even more space and personnel to help with the red pandas. “The work accomplished during that period set the standard on how to keep red pandas and breed them,” says Judith Block, who served as the Zoo’s registrar during that time.

As the pandas flourished, Roberts set his sights on spreading the population throughout the country. He sought out smaller zoos where the charismatic creatures would have center stage and not be overshadowed by lions, tigers, and other megastar species. In placing red pandas, it helped that they’re easy and fairly inexpensive to keep. They don’t require large enclosures, and they work well with keepers. By the early 1980s, a network of smaller zoos was displaying and breeding the animals.

red panda

(Jessie Cohen/NZP)

Species Survival Plan

Concurrently, a growing recognition of the plight of animals in the wild led the AZA to focus on conservation biology, and the first Species Survival Plans were created to establish healthy and sustainable zoo-bred animal populations. The AZA invited Roberts to create an SSP for red pandas in the early 1980s.

Building on the existing red-panda-breeding program, Roberts created and administered the red panda SSP for more than 20 years. Frank Kohn, now with the Fish and Wildlife Service, ably assisted as the red panda SSP records keeper. Every year, the two would sit down with the data and work out the best possible breeding combinations, moving pandas from one zoo to another in the intricate administrative dance required for sustainable breeding. Checking the records, Kohn estimates that at least 80 percent of the panda cubs born in the 1970s and 1980s in North America had at least one National Zoo parent.

“When people would ask me, ‘What do you do for a living?’ recalls Kohn, “I’d say ‘I’m the matchmaker for red pandas in North America.’ And being Jewish, I liked that. I was a red panda yenta.” To this day, Kohn’s license plate reads RDPANDA.

Furthermore, the red panda SSP team developed keeper-training programs that allowed zoos to pass on their expertise throughout the network. The program continues to this day. In fact, it became the model for all SSPs, so you could say the care and feeding of red pandas inspired protocols that have helped species preservation on a global level.

Today Knoxville Zoological Gardens handles the red panda SSP. Glass, the coordinator, says, “We have more zoos wishing to work with breeding pairs than we have animals. We’re really lucky that way, and it’s thanks to the work of Miles and Frank. As an SSP expands, you try to get everyone to love your species and make space for it in their zoos. They did a great job at that.”

red panda

(Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

Facing the Future

What is the future for this charming species that the Zoo so carefully nurtured and continues to breed with such success? The happy confluence of impassioned researchers, a healthy population of the charismatic critters, and sheer chance brought red pandas to the forefront of the development of Species Survival Plans in the 1970s and ’80s. So in a small but significant manner, the original panda has shaped modern zoological management of zoo-bred animals and increased the long-term chances for survival of many species.

The same factors that led to past success bode well for the future population of red pandas in human care. So does the sheer adorability of these animals. As Roberts observes, “To be a good candidate for conservation, it sure helps to be cute.” Playful, lovable red pandas are easily as cute as their giant name-sharers. And they’re far better breeders!

So reconsider the panda. Not so black and white now, is it?

— Freelance writer and web producer VALERIE MAY is a regular contributor to Smithsonian Zoogoer.

More: "What's In a Name?"

More: "Drawing on Data"

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Smithsonian Zoogoer 41(1) 2012. Copyright 2012 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.