BILLINGS — After losing two of its signature red pandas to old age and cancer last year, ZooMontana welcomed two more last week - Pabu, and his mother Mei-Mei arrived from Oregon on March 12.
"We're so excited to have Pabu and Mei Mei here, you know they are arguably the world's most famous red pandas right now. I know if you're watching from Oregon I know you're sad to have to say goodbye. But we're excited here at the zoo," ZooMontana's Executive Director Jeff Ewelt said.
Aside from their cuteness, these two red pandas are extremely important for their species.
"Obviously it's fun for people to get to see these two, but in a bigger picture, they are part of what we call the Species Survival Plan, we call it SSP, which basically means that they're set for breeding, which ensures that the species lives on," Ewelt said.
"It's all for a greater purpose, which is to help preserve these animals and to help boost their numbers in the wild," ZooMontana's Bri Little said.
The plan helps to promote genetic diversity. "So if and when populations need to be reestablished, we can do so with a genetically pure line of animals," Ewelt said.
So, what are the threats to their population?
"Unfortunately, these guys face quite a few problems in the wild. Most of them are human-related, so deforestation, habitat loss is a big thing for these guys, and they're poached quite a bit as well," Ewelt said, "Unfortunately poached for their hide."
The new living arrangements will provide benefits to all parties.
"Duli was, unfortunately, alone for a while. I mean, the zookeeping staff gave him plenty of love and attention which he totally deserved and he ate up, but now that hes' got these guys it's just the difference in his behavior is just astonishing," Little said, "He was still doing natural behaviors but just to see how much he has perked up, is all we can ask for".
Pabu is reaching an age where it is no longer safe for him to be in the same enclosure as his father, however, he is still too young to be without his mother.
"Duli, Mei-mei and Pabu-they're different species, and so Duli has been very entertained having these guys next door, watching them seeing them, getting their smells, that's all so enriching, for of course that animal. Of course we'd love to introduce them but because they are a different species they won't be together full-time, but any time new animals come in, like I said, new smells, scents, it's great enrichment for that animal, and it really gets them motivated and up in the morning. We love that, we love seeing that on him," Ewelt said. "Pabu was getting a little too old to be with Dad, more importantly though, Mom, Mei-Mei has some anxiety," Ewelt said.
So the slower pace of the Montana Zoo will benefit Mei-Mei as well.
"These guys are very well suited for Montana climate, and as you guys know Montana can be hot in the summertime and really cold in the winter-time, and these guys can tolerate those extremes no problem," Ewelt said.
People can support the animals by donating online, or visiting the zoo.
"Very few people are going to be able to see a red panda in the wild, it's just not going to be able to happen, so to be able to have kids come here and see this incredible animal learn a little bit about them, maybe learn a little about the troubles they face, maybe they'll care a little bit more, maybe they'll donate to conservation, or maybe become a conservationist themselves, and ultimately help these guys. That's the ultimate goal here," Ewelt said.
Again, the two are not quite ready to be integrated into the enclosure just yet, but it is getting closer. They will be making their public appearance after they undergo a 30-day quarantine.