Leafa strolls

Leafa, the female, age 9, strolls through her new habitat at the WNC Nature Center in Asheville.

The redcoats are coming! The redcoats are coming! No, not the British forces of old, but the cutest pair of faces imaginable are about to take Asheville by storm.

Leafa and Phoenix, the latest additions to the WNC Nature Center are like an old married couple, set in their ways, respectful of each other's boundaries and adorable in the way only long-term relationships can be. 

Together the pair have had four successful litters of cubs and are now considered retired for breeding purposes having become well-represented in the species gene pool.

Although the pair will not be breeding any longer, the new exhibit and facilities at the center are set up for a future breeding program.

When the WNC Nature Center set out to request a pair of red pandas, they intentionally opted for a non-breeding pair so it could perfect its red panda animal husbandry skills before attempting a breeding program.

The ridiculously cute red panda as a species are unique in the animal world, having stumped taxonomists for years as to who their closest relatives are.  The size of large house cats, sporting a ringed tail and masked face like a raccoon and the fluffy tail of a fox, the mammals don't fit any know category and were assigned one of their own, the Ailuridae family. 

In ages past though, the family included other species, whose members resided not very far from Asheville. The most complete skeletal remains ever found of a red panda relative were unearthed recently in Gray, Tennessee, not far from Johnson City. 

Dubbed the Bristol panda, for the man who identified the species, the ancient relative of the red panda would have lived much like its modern relatives in upper elevation mountainous land, using trees for shelter and protection and foraging or hunting on the ground. 

The new exhibit includes an opportunity to learn more about how the two species are related and the connections to the ancient Appalachian ecosystem. 

The $225,000 exhibit was paid for almost entirely by private donations and money raised by the Friends of the WNC Nature Center. In addition to funding the exhibit construction, the Friends group has pledged $5,000 a year to help develop the breeding program.

In years to come the red pandas at the WNC Nature Center will enjoy a diet of bamboo grown right on the property. 

The red pandas came to Asheville from the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and are adapting well to life in their new home said Animal Curator, Erin Oldread, who herself is new to Asheville.

Oldread came to the WNC Nature Center from Tampa, Florida, where she worked at Busch Gardens, caring for animals there. She will oversee the Red Panda program and future breeding programs along with her other duties.

Red Pandas can live up to 20 years in captivity, so it is expected that Leafa, the female, age 9, and Phoenix, the male, age 7, have a long life ahead of them. 

Oldread said that the otters seem to be a fan favorite of guests to the nature center, but she thinks the pandas will soon give them a run for their money. 

"They're just so darn cute, they are irresistible." 

Be prepared for a lot of lazy watching as red pandas prefer the lounge life. They are most active in early mornings or at dusk and prefer to chill during the warmer parts of the day, said Oldread.

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