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Pandas Thrive, Mate in Model Zoo Program


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — When Bob and Emma begat Ti Wu Shih and T'an Pai Tee last June, the Knoxville Zoological Park celebrated a milestone in its effort to rescue endangered red pandas from the verge of extinction.

These cute-as-stuffed-toys twins became the 50th and 51st pandas born at this small but growing institution since its panda program began in 1976.

That is the highest red panda birth rate of any single zoo in North America, and second internationally only to the Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands.

Perhaps more important for the fewer than 200 red pandas in captivity in North America--13 of which are in Knoxville--are the management techniques being developed by panda curator Greta McMillan and her colleagues.

It's not candlelight and music that's putting these pandas in the mood to proliferate. It's a relaxed lifestyle, even for these raccoon-like "lesser pandas," whose favorite repose is draped over a limb munching bamboo leaves.

"We have a really intensive behavioral-management program so that our animals will do things, like walk on a scale or walk into a crate, just by receiving a treat or an apple," McMillan said.

"We have animals that take medication. Just hand it to them and they eat it."

The alternative isn't hard to imagine: using darts to bring animals out of trees or lying in wait and rushing them with a net when they come down.

Though it's tempting to treat the pandas as tame, McMillan said she and her assistants never get that close to them. Even these apparently cuddly creatures have feline claws and canine teeth.

She's convinced that the low-stress management style "contributes to our reproductive success" and makes it possible to learn more about the animals and better care for them.

Miles Roberts, coordinator for the red pandas' North American species survival plan at the National Zoo in Washington, has high praise for McMillan's work.

"I think the program they have in effect there right now is going to spread," he said. "I think it is going to be a model for this species."

McMillan, who has been working with Knoxville's pandas since she studied their breeding habits for a master's thesis a decade ago, has produced a videotape to teach her techniques to other zookeepers.

And the Knoxville Zoo sponsored a conference this year to introduce her methods to curators from a dozen of the 48 other North American zoos that keep red pandas.

Red pandas, described by one 19th century British observer as "the most beautiful of all known quadrupeds," are native to the Himalayan forests of Nepal and China.

Infrequently hunted for their pelts, the timid red pandas are losing their habitat to encroaching agriculture. No one knows how many are left in the wild.

Ironically, one of their greatest threats until very recently was from those who would love them--pet owners and zoos, Roberts said.

The Chinese, in establishing sister cities in the United States, often offered red pandas as diplomatic gifts.

"Zoos would be accepting these animals because they didn't want to be impolite and they thought they were doing something for conservation. In fact, they were doing just the opposite," Roberts said.

He said the species survival project had to step in and "encourage zoos not to buy into that program, because it was really causing a major impact on wild populations."

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