Whether holding a raffle to raise money to adopt a red panda or supporting programs that address deforestation in red panda territory, donors near and far help Red Panda Network (RPN) carry out its mission to save red pandas and their habitat every day.
One such donor has taken a creative approach to red panda conservation that has not only helped red pandas but also helped people to better understand the endangered animals.
This special meet and greet is a 30-minute session during which a visitor gets to pet, feed and take photos with the Park’s red pandas. For each Experience booked, Red Panda Network gets £25 (approximately $33) — or double that if a couple or two friends book together — to assist with establishing the PIT Red Panda Protected Forest. By November of 2017, this amounted to be over $3,000.
Each Experience begins with a health and safety discussion. “Even though the red pandas are extremely gentle and calm we obviously take precautions to guarantee the safety of both the public and the pandas,” wrote Donna Sinclair, a keeper at Paradise Park, via email. “These include things like warning the visitors that the pandas have sharp claws and teeth, as you can never be too careful, but we have never witnessed an ounce of aggression whilst training our pandas. Before going in we brief people to be calm in the enclosure and to follow our instructions. We also have an age limit so that we feel sure that everyone who goes in is capable of understanding our guidelines and following instructions.”
After the visitor enters the enclosure, the red panda is invited to sit on his/her lap. “Koda, our youngest, is normally there waiting, and we have to get him to move so the person can actually sit down!” Sinclair wrote. “The visitor can then stroke the pandas, ear to tail and under the belly, just like the vet would do in his health check. Depending on the day, we might do the weekly weigh-in when we ask the pandas to step on the scales, and we take a reading for our records. Then the opportunity for lots of photos, chat and questions while the people enjoy their time being close to the pandas. The Experience finishes with putting the red panda food bowls and bamboo out into the special holders all over the enclosure.”
The Park offered its first Experience in 2010 as a competition prize on International Red Panda Day. “We then started offering a few dates out to the public in 2015,” Sinclair wrote. “These were so successful we then decided to build a new enclosure which was designed with Experiences in mind.”
The idea for the Experience grew out of the training the keepers were doing with the red pandas to prepare them for their health check-ups. The Park breeds red pandas. When the cubs are a year old, they get a check-up before being placed in a travel crate and moved to their new homes in compliance with the European Breeding Programme of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA).
“We wanted to do all these behaviours restraint-free to cause as little stress to the animals as possible,” Sinclair wrote. “So, we started getting the pandas to come down to us of their own choice, and they were quickly happy to do this. But they knew us already and trusted us. Our aim was for them to accept new people entering the enclosure, so we asked volunteers to help us with the training. And that is where the idea came from. We could invite members of the public to come in and meet the pandas so they get used to different people, and when the day comes for the vet to do examinations they are not frightened of him – it’s just another experience.”
To ensure the Experience is accessible to everyone, the trainers also introduced the red pandas to wheelchairs. Training them to come down to a wheelchair only took about 10 minutes, Sinclair wrote. “Myself and fellow red panda keeper Sarah-Jayne have an incredible working relationship with our pandas, and I feel they trust us. They know we are not going to harm them in anyway, so anything new we bring into the enclosure — a wheelchair, a travelling box, the vet! — they quickly accept it and come on down. We are incredibly lucky to work with such confident and amazing animals.”
According to Sinclair, the Experience is a hit. “The reaction has been fantastic, and the Experiences have been really popular.”
Because Paradise Park’s breeding efforts have been so successful this past year, the European Studbook keeper asked the Park to refrain from breeding its red pandas this season, Sinclair wrote. “This meant that we have had more red pandas available to participate, but when our animals are breeding we limit the Experiences to outside the breeding season for them.”
Currently four of the Park’s five red pandas participate in the Red Panda Experience, and the Experience is only offered once a day. Thanks to the non-breeding recommendation, the Park has been able to provide 53 Experiences so far this year. “When we are fully booked we can have 3 or 4 a week,” Sinclair wrote. “But the pandas have set days off and allocated months off so we can concentrate on our training.
Offering the Red Panda Experience is just one way Paradise Park, which opened in 1973 as a bird garden, works to increase community awareness of red pandas and their difficult situation. Signage, children’s quizzes and the showing of a RPN video this past summer are among the Park’s other efforts.
Paradise Park’s relationship with RPN began with its participation in the first International Red Panda Day in 2010. “When I joined the Park in 2009, this was my first encounter working with red pandas,” Sinclair wrote. “My passion for them grew, and as I increased my knowledge I learned about the Red Panda Network and the incredible work they do in the wild. Immediately I thought, ‘What we can do to help?’, and our red panda journey started from there.”
For Sinclair, the journey has been delightful: “I love being able to work with such a calm, gentle and incredibly intelligent animal. The bond I have made with the pandas is lovely, and I love being able to share this beautiful animal with the public, whether it be through talks, red panda days or Experiences.”
We are honored by Paradise Park’s commitment to our mission to conserve red pandas in the wild. Click here to learn more about their Red Panda Experiences and be sure to check them out on Facebook and Twitter!
Writing and Communications Volunteer
Red Panda Network