Plans for red pandas

The otters and penguins will be returning to Minot’s Roosevelt Park Zoo over the course of the summer, and the old Education Building will begin its transformation into an ambitious new aviary, but that’s not all for the zoo’s 2014 season.

Zoo administrators and the Greater Minot Zoological Society will present tonight to the Minot Park Board a proposal to build a new exhibit, in which a pair of red pandas will take up residence.

“The red panda exhibit is something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time,” said Becky Dewitz, GMZS development coordinator.

Planned to replace one of the old bird fixtures located near the bear enclosure, the red panda exhibit so far is estimated to cost around $115,000 to build. The zoological society has benefited from a couple of fundraisers for the project, such as a raffle put on by area businesses that brought in $18,000, and another $14,000 contributed by the Minot Lions Club.

Funding to build the exhibit is not an issue, but the park commissioners will have to consider its committment to the red pandas’ upkeep.

“Both entities have a lot to consider,” said Dave Merritt, the zoo’s director.

Also called the lesser panda or red cat-bear, red pandas are more closely related to the American raccoon than they are the giant panda. Described as shy and not too rough-and-tumble with their habitat, the zoo will be able to include live plants in the animals’ enclosures.

“I think this will be a really neat exhibit,” Merritt said, further diversifying the park’s stock. “They’re relatively winter-hardy,” he added, able to be displayed during the early and later parts of the season when other animals, such as the primates, need to be kept indoors.

The primary difficulty in raising red pandas is the animals’ diet, which revolves around fresh bamboo. Consulting a city horticulturist, Merritt explained that the zoo would be able to plant bamboo around its grounds to meet much of that need, as is done at the Denver Zoo in Colorado.

The red panda or Ailurus fulgens is about the size of a large raccoon, and found around the elevated, interior regions of China and South Asia. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the red panda as a vulnerable species, with a wild population ranging between 3,000 and 7,000 and thought to be decreasing.

If the project moves forward, the zoo will also be looking toward the species’ future.

“We’re setting up to be able to have breeding pairs,” Merritt explained, with the enclosure’s layout adaptable to keeping litters apart. The zoo plans initially to host a pair of males as they get the animals’ routine and proper care down. But eventually Merritt hoped that they will be able to become part of a captive-breeding program.

The park board will meet tonight at 6:30 in room 203 of the Minot Municipal Auditorium to discuss the project.

Already finding approval with the board’s zoo committee, Merritt and Dewitz are both hopeful that the project will move forward.

“With some luck we might be able to have the exhibit finished by the end of the summer,” he said.