Red Pandas steal the show at Atascadero Zoo

Red Pandas met an audience for the first time after a ribbon cutting a the Atascadero Zoo, March 1 (photos by Camas Frank)

ATASCADERO — According to speakers at a ribbon-cutting ceremony March 1, Thelma Vetter would never have wanted the public recognition that a placard bearing her name at the Atascadero Zoo’s new Red Panda Experience has brought. But her bequest for the care of animals and expansion of zoo programs has led to a renaissance of sorts for the Charles Paddock Zoo and organizers wanted her to receive credit.

The exhibit featuring animals from the Indo-Burma region is now open for visitors making this the second time that red pandas have been on display, and Zoo Director Alan Baker has extensive experience with them. Palpably cute, the little ailurus fulgen possess a more striking resemblance to a raccoon or primate than to the giant black and white panda bears, as they climb a frame of branches in search of succulent bamboo.

Native to the eastern Himalayas, they’re more accustomed to the chill than their neighbor two cages down, the Malayan Tiger. When Atascadero’s summer temperatures peak they’ll have a nicely air-conditioned den to retreat inside.

Keeper Jocelyn Katzakian notes that while “they’re very chill,” the small pandas’ cuddliness is something of a ruse. Up close their fur isn’t quite as soft as it looks and anyone going in for a hug would be met by fierce claws. Other than that, the three males — Pabu, and twins Yeren and Pingjing — and the lone female Willa are content to eat, sleep, and drink between visits from trainers and keepers. They’re not much fussed about being on display in front of crowds, although for the first time Friday evening they had a large audience to watch their exploration of the new enclosure.

Baker notes that the exhibit, which includes 11 species, counting reptiles and birds (not in the same enclosure), is 99 percent complete. He wanted visitors to see the completed Phase I of the Indo-Burma exhibit as an example of what the rest of the zoo will look like in future renovations.

Featuring two elevated thatch roof canopies and a wrap-around ramp surrounding an aviary, the architecture places visitors up close with animals without interrupting their environment. If a keeper isn’t on hand, a video monitor plays introductions by Baker.

While Paso Robles Bamboo keeps the pandas in fresh trimmings, caring for all of the zoo’s species is an expensive undertaking. The public is invited to join the Friends of the Atascadero Zoo program at the $40 and $100 pledge levels for a plush toy and certificate of friendship with one of the zoo’s many critters.

Information on contributions, hours and tickets can be found online at


Red Pandas met an audience for the first time after a ribbon cutting a the Atascadero Zoo, March 1 (photos by Camas Frank)

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