Love is rocky for red pandas in central Illinois

2013-06-22T21:00:00Z 2013-08-21T18:25:26Z Love is rocky for red pandas in central IllinoisAllison Petty (Decatur) Herald and Review nwitimes.com
June 22, 2013 9:00 pm  • 

 DECATUR, Ill. | For four years, Clay the red panda lived alone at Scovill Zoo.

Adults pointed at him, cooing at his heart-shaped face and bushy tail. Children pressed their sticky fingers up against the glass, gazing in wonder at what looks like a fluffy red raccoon.

Clay, meanwhile, continued his bachelor life, sleeping during the heat of the day and prowling around branches when it was cooler, unaware that he amassed a fan base merely by existing.

One day last month, another red panda appeared in the enclosure. Born last June, Kaydee is described by her new keepers as curious and sweet. They hoped she would be good company for Clay and, in a few months, the two of them might start a family.

The first meeting did not go well.

"We thought just a regular meet-and-greet would work before," said Ken Frye, the zoo's assistant director. "She was a little more skeptical. I think she instigated the — it was a little spat."

After that, the animals were kept apart until their keepers could build a special gate to separate them. The vinyl-covered wire allows them to see and smell each other, and they can even sit on the same shelf while separated by the barrier.

In coming days, Frye said, the keepers will try the introduction again.

The behavior is not so different from how red pandas might act in the wild, where they are solitary animals except for when they mate. Red pandas live in Nepal, Myanmar and China, where they spend most of their time in trees and eat bamboo, fruits, acorns, eggs and roots.

Red pandas are considered "vulnerable" by the World Wildlife Fund, as there are fewer than 10,000 of them living in the wild.

They have several common nicknames, including "fire fox" and "lesser panda." Their scientific name, Ailurus fulgens, means "shining cat."

While Frye said Clay is a good red panda, he is also more cautious than his new roommate. Kaydee peers curiously at people who enter the exhibit, readily takes fruit offered from their hands and even plays enthusiastically with a ball given to her by one keeper.

She came from the Oklahoma City Zoo, where her keeper was a fan of the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder and the team's superstar, Kevin Durant. Her name is the phonetic spelling of his initials.

Because red pandas are most active when it is cool, the best time to see them is in the morning or early evening, Frye said.

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