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Terrified at First, I Met Red Pandas at the Cincinnati Zoo and Loved It

I conquered a fear I didn’t know I had last week.

The Enquirer’s TikTok team headed to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden for a meet-and-greet with the zoo’s red pandas ‒ the small, reddish-brown mammals that look almost too cute to be real. The trip was the third installment of our zoo series. (We met Fiona the hippo and her family in February and the cheetah/dog companion pairs in April.)

Like a cotton ball-esque dog with an unexpectedly vicious bark, the red pandas look adorable but have sharp teeth and claws they’re not afraid to use ‒ or so we were told by zookeeper Paul Reinhart as he unlatched the gate to their enclosure. Given Reinhart’s precaution, entering the pandas’ habitat made me wonder whether I was about to encounter a fluffy friend or meet my maker.

As we rounded the habitat’s corner, dodging a log that lay slanted in between lush trees, the hairy beast I was bracing for was merely, indeed, a fluffy friend. There, nestled among the branches like a cat on a windowsill, was Audra, the first of two red pandas Reinhart introduced us to that day.

Reinhart hovered at the base of the tree shaking a cup of apple pieces in an attempt to lure Audra to her audience of adoring fans. But Audra was unbothered and continued resting, so the zookeeper gave us some fast facts about the species.

The red panda, deemed endangered by the World Wildlife Fund, is native to China and India. It is not at all closely related to the giant panda, despite having a similar name. The species consists of two subspecies: the Himalayan red panda and the Chinese red panda. The Cincinnati Zoo has three red pandas currently in its care (Audra, Zuko and Lenore), all part of the Chinese red panda subspecies, which is characterized by a curved forehead and darker coat. The zoo works with the Red Panda Network to counteract endangerment, caused by the demolition of the pandas’ forest habitat and poaching, Reinhart said.

Once Audra made clear she was not abandoning her tree throne to amuse us, we made our way to the other end of the habitat. There, we met Zuko.

Reinhart offered another forewarning. “This is a tricky one. If I tell you to run, move towards the door (of the habitat) … Zuko is kind of a punk.”

My palms started sweating. Weren’t all red pandas sleepy and well-tempered like Audra?

Apparently not. Once again, we rounded the corner and spotted Zuko, a sprightly young panda who, we learned, is just over 1 year old. “He’s too comfortable around humans. He’ll lick and chew on my legs,” Reinhart said.

Sure enough, Zuko stealthily crept over to Reinhart before sticking his whiskered face in the zookeeper’s palm full of apple pieces. He perched himself on a slanted tree branch, licking the sticky apple remnants in Reinhart’s palm, then sniffed and nipped at Reinhart’s forearm while on the hunt for more snacks.

My more-courageous co-worker Bebe Hodges took her turn feeding Zuko treats, which he gobbled up quite quickly and adorably, I admit.

We then learned Zuko came to Cincinnati from Greensboro Science Center in Greensboro, North Carolina, to breed with Lenore, the zoo’s third red panda, as part of the zoo’s Species Survival Plan.

Zuko is a punk and a player, I thought.

Finally, we returned to Audra’s side of the exhibit for one more attempt at luring her down from the tree branches. Like an impatient father, Reinhart playfully heckled Audra for a few moments before she finally crept down the tree and straight toward the apple pieces in his palm.

A woman motivated by food. Audra and I are one and the same.

More poised than baby Zuko, Audra positioned herself on a low tree branch while my other colleagues took turns feeding her treats.

Then I took a deep breath. It was my turn.

I took slow and careful steps toward Audra as Reinhart plopped a few apple pieces in my palm. I stretched my hand under the fluffy panda’s whiskers, closed my eyes and let Audra do her thing.

I felt her little tongue tickle my hand as she gobbled up the snack. After a few gentle sniffs, the creature retreated back up the branch.

I did it! I conquered a fear of red pandas I didn’t even know I had.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: We met red pandas at the Cincinnati Zoo. I was terrified. Then I wasn’t.

Source: Cincinnati Enquirer