Animal Welfare: A Red Panda’s-Eye View

There are many questions I’d like to ask animals. In the case of the red pandas who live at the Detroit Zoo, one question would have to do with their newly expanded and renovated digs. Ash, Ravi and Ta-shi have moved into the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest, where so much work has been done to ensure they will enjoy this wonderful habitat.

It would be nice if we could channel our internal Dr. Doolittle and simply ask them what they think, but what would be the fun in that? Since we don’t share a common language with red pandas, our challenge is to figure out what they are telling us using means other than traditional human communication. To determine the impact of the Red Panda Forest on the well-being of the three red pandas, Detroit Zoological Society staff are conducting behavioral observations on each one of them as they explore their home.

Red pandas are endangered and native to Asia’s high-altitude temperate forests. With 50 percent of their natural range in the eastern Himalayas, they are well-suited to the cold temperatures and snow we experience in Michigan. Red pandas use their long, bushy tails for both balance (as they traverse tree canopies) and protection from the elements. Although they are a carnivore species, they are actually leaf-eaters, with bamboo comprising the primary component of their diet in the wild. They are also crepuscular, meaning they are most active early in the morning and later in the day, with their natural breeding season during the late winter months.

Detroit Zoological Society staff have been caring for red pandas for several decades. This experience proved invaluable when designing the new features in their habitat. The Red Panda Forest incorporates tall, natural trees to create a complex arboreal pathway, as well as a flowing stream and misting areas. One of the really cool aspects of the habitat is the suspension bridge that brings us eye-level with the pandas when they are in the tree canopy. Not only does this offer us a great view of the pandas, but it will also allow us to gain a better understanding of what they are experiencing. What does the world look and sound like from that height? Part of promoting good welfare for an animal is to be sensitive to their perception of the word around them.

We look forward to uncovering how the three red pandas use their new habitat, including how each one differs in their behavior and preferences. Knowing this enables us to create opportunities for each of them to thrive. We hope you check out the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest during your next visit to the Detroit Zoo and see this incredible new space for yourself.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics.