Red pandas create stir at Brandywine Zoo

Red pandas have created a spike in attendance at the Brandywine Zoo.

Indigenous to such areas as the Himalayas, the red pands, also known as fire foxes, debuted at the Brandywine Zoo in June. They have, according to zoo Director Gene Peacock, helped attendance to thrive.

There were 3,000 more visitors in July of 2014 than in July of 2013. The pandas — named Gansu and Meriadoc — are sisters, which make them litter mates. Despite common belief, they are not from the bear family. They walk with a cat-like swagger and are more closely related to foxes, skunks and raccoons.

"They are the original pandas," Peacock said, and were discovered 50 years before the Giant panda.

They’re not from the same family, though. Red pandas are arboreal creatures, which is why their tails are long and they can stay high in the trees. The Giant Panda is more earthbound. They are also considered to be carnivores despite the fact that they do not eat meet. So why the confusion? Part of that, Peacock said it’s because of the thumb. Both have what is called a “bamboo thumb.” It is when the thumb curls inward to grab bamboo shoots to eat.

Assistant Curator of Animals Donna Evernham said that the two sister red pandas have different personalities. She states that Gansu, "is very low key, very chill."

Meriadoc, however, is "very 'look-at-me', look-at-me', 'look-at-me,'" Evernham said.

She added that, when photographers come to take official photos, and the camera gets close to the zoo mesh, Meriadoc moves in as if to say, "is this how close you want me to get?" She also comments how the photographers are so drawn in by their cuteness, that they have a desire to put a finger through to pet the animals, forgetting that they have sharp teeth and sharp claws.

Keepers like Laura Martin and Leah Newman are hands-on trainers. During a typical session, they bring in a Cool Whip bowl, which is something that was used as a visual target where the sisters came from a Detroit zoo.

A visual target is what lets them know that training is starting and helps them focus. Essentially, a target is something visual to indicate that they need to touch something or stand on something, (such as a scale so that the keepers can monitor their weight for health reasons).

Another part of the training process involves a whistle. Blowing the whistle is a way that the keepers can establish a bridge — the arch between the command and the fulfillment of that command — which indicates that the pandas have done what the trainers wanted, and have moved where they wanted them to go.

Training is not just for show; it's an intricate process to help determine the health of the animal. By blowing the whistle and raising a piece of bamboo or some other type of food, the red pandas stretches up, allowing the keepers to see if there is any injury that needs to be tended to. When the animal stretches, it gives keepers a look at their bodies so they don't have to be aggressive in handling them.

In addition to being a part of the the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Brandywine Zoo is also part of the the Species Survival Plan. Evernham explains that the SSP is "a governing body in the zoo world that is in charge of red pandas and where they go and who breeds with who and so, as an AZA zoo, we will participate in that."

Evernham said the most frequently asked questions are why they aren't black and white whether they’re babies. Other comment that the pandas are so cute thehy would make greaqt pets.

Here is where she gets to further educate visitors, reminding them that, while they are small and adorable, the red panda has teeth and claws.

When asked what is one of the most important things that they want visitors to take home, Lead Keeper Meghaan Canter said that the animals within the zoo "are advocates for their wild counterparts." She added that, "it's all about preservation and education."

The keepers all agree that they want people to feel a link with the natural world and hope that visiting the red panda enclave will inspire them to go online to learn more.

As Peacock said, by making a link with the pandas and their world, “It will inspire people to protect surrounding wildlife."

About Erin Moonyeen Haley

After graduating from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia with a degree in Writing for Film and Television, Erin made the cross-country road trip to Los Angeles where she worked nights at Disneyland before landing assistant gigs at agencies and various production companies. After five years, she decided on a career change and returned to the East Coast, enrolling in West Chester University to earn a Masters in English. Now, she is going on to earn her teaching certificate to teach English in the high school classroom. Throughout all of these years, she's been able to keep her resume eclectic, interning at the Cannes Film Festival, studying art history in Florence, Italy, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and writing freelance articles for such websites as, garden and In the end, writing, traveling, and teaching remain her ultimate passions.



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