• Print

    Red panda cub to be ready for fall close-up at Memphis Zoo

    Linda A. Moore - The Commercial Appeal -

    Memphis Zoo officials promise that once the new red panda cub, named Justin, is placed on exhibit this fall he'll be well worth the wait.

    The cub was born on July 1 to mother Pele and father Ryo in the zoo's Commercial Appeal Cat Country, but is now being hand-raised in the zoo's hospital.

    "Words cannot describe appropriately because he is pretty phenomenal," said senior veterinarian Dr. Felicia Knightly. "He's an amazing little creature."

    This is the first successful red panda birth at the zoo since 2005.

    Weighing between 4 and 4 1/2 ounces at birth, Justin was nursed by his mother for the first week, but was removed when zoo officials became concerned, said Matt Thompson, director of animal programs.

    "She left the nest box and wasn't tending to him properly, so we decided to pull him," Thompson said.

    But hand-raising an animal isn't always a success, Knightly said. After learning how to nurse from its mother, the animal must then learn how to take a bottle as well as adjust to a new formula that isn't mother's milk.

    "It's a huge learning curve for the human caretaker and the baby," Knightly said.

    There were no problems with Justin.

    "It seemed like we both understood each other pretty quickly. He started onto the formula on the first day," she said. "If you can get a baby on the bottle successfully within the first 24 hours that's excellent. Once he got that whole nursing thing down, he never looked back."

    The zoo (which has a third red panda, Pistol Pete) is now expecting a companion for Justin, a female red panda about his age who is being hand-raised at the Bronx Zoo, Thompson said.

    They will be raised together and when the two are mature they will be a breeding pair, he said.

    "Hand-raised cubs go on to be perfectly productive members of red panda society. Some of our best breeders are males and females who were hand raised," said Sarah Glass, a curator at the Knoxville Zoo and coordinator of the red panda species survival program with the Association Zoos and Aquariums.

    Red pandas are the original pandas and were "discovered" by Westerners before the giant panda, Glass said.

    The two red panda species are unrelated to giant pandas, but do eat bamboo and there is some overlap in native Asian habitats.

    There are thought to be fewer than 10,000 red pandas left in the wild. The animals are not on the U.S. endangered list, but are listed as vulnerable, making it illegal to trade in red pandas or red panda parts, Glass said.

    One thing they do share with giant pandas are their challenges in breeding. The females are fertile for about 48 hours out of the year, Glass said.

    "The biggest thing facing them now is habitat destruction," she said.

    This year there have been 17 red panda cubs born in the United States and Canada, she said.