A panda, by any other name . . .

Red pandas have been enchanting and confusing people for a long time.


From their discovery in 1825, scientists have been unable to determine the red panda’s closest relations. They were originally thought to be a part of the raccoon family because of bone structure and physical characteristics (a ringed tail, for example). Years later, the development of DNA technology moved them into the bear family. It wasn’t until recently that DNA research proved them to be their own family, although more closely related to raccoons, weasels and skunks than to bears.


Even the name panda has led to confusion. While the giant panda and red panda have some shared characteristics, they are not closely related. The name panda comes from a Nepalese word meaning bamboo eater, something that both animals do a lot of. Both pandas rely on bamboo for 85-95 percent of their diet, using a false thumb to grasp the stalks much like a person would.


Over the years, the red panda has gone through several name changes. From being known as a Wah, to panda, firefox and red cat-bear, it wasn’t until the discovery of the giant panda nearly 50 years later that the name changed to red panda to distinguish the two.


Confusion aside, red pandas have been oohed and aahed over by zoo goers and keepers alike. The raccoon-like markings on their faces give the impression of mischievousness, but they are often shy and prefer to curl up and sleep. However, when their keepers arrive with grapes for training, all bets are off. Damien, the Pueblo Zoo’s longest resident (and keeper favorite), especially enjoys showing off how intelligent he is, and will even train with the public during behind-the-scene tours. Currently, the zoo is home to four red pandas being housed in two separate exhibits.


Red pandas have been chosen as one of the Pueblo Zoo’s three conservation ambassadors. Visitor contributions are dedicated to the Red Panda Network, a field conservation group that works to save wild red pandas and preserve their habitat through the empowerment of local communities. Specifically, the pledge is directed toward funding “forest guardians” who monitor and protect red panda habitat, as well as educate their communities about the importance of the red panda to their future.


In addition, two staff members, General Curator Ashley Bowen and Area Supervisor Laura Pilarski are so dedicated to red pandas, they are planning a trip to Nepal in the spring of 2017 to volunteer for the Red Panda Network. For more information about supporting their trip or conservation at the zoo, call 561-1452, ext. 107.



Scientific name: Ailurus fulgens

Common name: Red panda. Although sometimes referred to as a “firefox” or “lesser panda,” the red panda is not a part of the fox or panda family and is more closely related to raccoons, although it is classified as its own family.

Description: Red panda coats are reddish-brown in color on their backs and black on the backs of their legs. They have a very dense undercoat that provides warmth. Their faces are rounded and mostly white with reddish-brown markings under their eyes. Their long, bushy tails have alternating rings. At maturity, they only weigh around 11 pounds.

Range: There are two subspecies of red pandas: Ailurus fulgens fulgens, found in Nepal, northeastern India, Bhutan and part of China; and Ailurus fulgens styani, found in China and northern Myanmar.

Habitat: Temperate, mountainous forests 7,200-15,800 feet above sea level where thick bamboo tree cover is available.

Reproduction and rearing: Male and female red pandas generally live separately and come together only during breeding season. In the northern hemisphere, red pandas breed from January through March, and June through August in the southern hemisphere. After about 135 days gestation, a female will give birth to one or two young in a hollow tree cavity or den. Newborn red pandas are blind and helpless until their eyes open after about 18 days.

Predators: Leopards and jackals.

Lifespan: Up to 22 years.

Conservation status: Endangered due to habitat loss and degradation, human interference and poaching. Scientists believe that the total population of red pandas has declined by 50 percent over the past two decades.


References: arkive.org; nationalzoo.si.edu; iucnredlist.org; redpandanetwork

— Heather Dewey



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