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New at the Zoo: Meet Red Pandas Nutmeg and Jackie

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, two animals that are red and white and beloved by everyone made their debut on Asia Trail! Meet Nutmeg and her son, Jackie, who came to the Zoo from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in December. In this Q&A, get the scoop on the Zoo’s new red panda pair from animal keeper Mariel Lally.

Red Pandas Nutmeg and Jackie

How do you tell Nutmeg and Jackie apart?

At 8.5 months old, Jackie is a bit smaller than his 4-year-old mom, Nutmeg. While Nutmeg has a very light face and blonde hips, Jackie’s forehead is red. Beneath his eyes, he has dark red teardrop markings that are very pronounced.

Personality-wise, Jackie is playful and inquisitive; he will walk right up to keepers to check out what is going on. Nutmeg, on the other hand, is a bit more subdued and prefers to observe her surroundings from a distance. While she is friendly, all interactions with keepers take place on her terms.

They made their debut on Asia Trail last week and seem to enjoy exploring the red panda habitat. They spent the majority of their time climbing trees, following one another around the yard, and smelling where our 3-year-old female red panda, Asa, has been scent marking. Sometimes Nutmeg and Jackie will go their separate ways, but more often than not Nutmeg is leading the way. Sometimes, Jackie is so interested in an object in the yard that he will not notice mom is many paces ahead. Once he does, though, he will run after her and give her a nice big hug.

Red panda Jackie

What are their favorite foods?

Red pandas’ diet consists mostly of bamboo. We give each red panda six stalks every day, and they will comb over the stalks and eat the leaves. We may increase or decrease the amount that we give them depending on their appetite. They also receive about 400 grams of leaf-eater biscuits. During training sessions, they receive grapes and apples as a reward, though grapes seem to be the treat of choice. Jackie also enjoys bananas, but Nutmeg does not care for them.

Red panda Jackie

Do keepers train the red pandas?

Yes! We have started positive reinforcement training, and a key component of this type of training is that participation is voluntary. If they do the behaviors asked of them, they are rewarded with food, usually grapes or apple slices. If they choose to walk away, there are no negative consequences. It is important to keep training sessions a positive experience, which helps keepers to gain the animals’ trust.

We have started target training (moving toward an object or desired location) Nutmeg and Jackie, as well as teaching them basic husbandry behaviors. When asked, they will stand on their hind legs so we can examine their bodies for cuts, scrapes, or other issues that our veterinary team may need to address.

Because it is safe for us to be in the red pandas’ habitat with them, we also get them used to our touch through tactile training. This prepares them for veterinary exams or medical procedures they need down the road, lessening or eliminating their stress.

Both Nutmeg and Jackie voluntarily walk onto a scale and are willing to do so for some grapes. We try to keep the pair separated during their weekly weigh-ins because Jackie will follow his mom right onto the scale!

Red panda Jackie

Do the red pandas have favorite toys?

The red pandas enjoy any toy that they can swat around, jump on top of, or carry around the habitat. Weeble-wobbles and kongs top their list night now. We tried something new and gave them a box filled with pine shavings, and Jackie seemed intrigued by them. They offer him a new smell to investigate and texture to feel.

The elements of the red panda habitat—trees, water feature and rockwork—are all enriching as well. Jackie seems to like pruning small branches off the trees, picking them up, breaking them into smaller pieces and carrying them around.

Red pandas Nutmeg and jackie

What is your favorite fact about red pandas?

Red pandas have fuzzy feet! They are built to withstand the snow in their native habitat, so the pads of their feet are covered in fur. They are most active when it is cold outside and when there is snow on the ground. 

Red pandas Nutmeg and Jackie

For how long will Nutmeg and Jackie be housed together?

Once red panda breeding season has passed, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan will likely decide whether Jackie will go to another Zoo to contribute to their breeding program.

Prior to Jackie’s departure, we will try to introduce him and Nutmeg to Asa. They are in separate enclosures at the moment, but they are able to interact, see and smell one another through the mesh. So far, all of those interactions have been positive. Keepers will be monitoring all interactions closely to determine if the trio are compatible.

If it appears that the red pandas are not comfortable sharing a space, we will continue to house them separately—with Nutmeg and Jackie as a pair, and Asa solo—and try again when Jackie departs. If Nutmeg and Asa choose not to socialize with one another, keepers will ensure that they are able to spend time in the yard every day separately.

This story appears in the February 2018 issue of National Zoo News. Celebrate Nutmeg and Jackie’s arrival by adopting a red panda.