2020 “HANGING OUT WITH ANIMALS” Calendar – September Story

Could he be any cuter? Well, read on and we’ll see…

Here comes trouble!

When you consider how unbearably cute red pandas are, it’s kind of hard to understand why I haven’t featured one in my calendar since way back in 2016, but there you go. In any event, there has been a complete turnover in the red panda population at the Toronto Zoo since that last post… and then some. The two adorable inhabitants of the exhibit in those days were Ralphie and Cassie, with Cassie being the featured animal in October of 2016. She departed not long after that for Safari Niagara and another female, Malina, came in to take her place. However, Ralphie failed to breed with either female so a new SSP recommendation came through and both he and Malina departed in 2019 for Zoo Sauvage de Saint-Félicien in Québec, although not at the same time. Ralphie stayed a bit longer than Malina, likely because Suva – who arrived from Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg on May 9 – was not yet ready to go out on exhibit. When he did go out he spent some time by himself until his new mate, Ila, came to town. She arrived from Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle sometime in the last week of October last year and came out on exhibit on December 4. They met each other at some point in the New Year and got along famously, even though they are both quite young (Suva is three and Ila is two). And then Ila seemed to really take the day of St. Bridget’s Complaint seriously this year, because… well, let’s hold that thought just for the moment.

Heartbreaker Suva

Even in the realm of these impossibly cute animals, Suva is next-level photogenic. I have yet to take a bad photo of him that cannot be blamed on “user error,” and I call tell you that he is even more handsome up close. Last fall, I had the highest bid at a silent auction on Snow Leopard Awareness Day at the Zoo, and was given the opportunity to do a “Keeper for a [Half-] Day” in Eurasia a couple of weeks later. I had already done a couple of KfaDs in past years, but they were full-day affairs in bigger domains (Savanna and Indo-Malaya). As Eurasia is a much smaller region of the Zoo in size – and as I am definitely not getting any younger – I was more than happy to have the shorter experience. There was plenty of time for Jenn and me to fit in work and encounters with the mouflon and Barbary sheep, snow leopards, and west Caucasian turs – and even a couple of moments with the Bactrian camels even though they weren’t part of her routine that day – but the very first stop we made was at the red panda house. Ila had arrived by that point but was still in quarantine so only Suva was going on the exhibit that day. I was given the chance to place his bamboo where I wished on the north exhibit, after leading him out there via some hand-held bits that I was allowed to feed him. But the crowning moment was when, for the first time, I was able to touch a red panda, giving Suva a few gentle skritches and pats on the back of his neck and upper shoulders. However amazing you think it was, it was even more amazing than that – and his little squeaks while he was taking bamboo from me basically turned me into a puddle. If you ever find yourself with this opportunity in your own life, do not turn it down. Trust me on this one.

Ila (top) and Suva

I did get to see the two youngsters together on a few occasions before the whole world stopped, in March. For the most part, they got along famously every time I saw them; however, the last time was just four days before the Zoo shut down for several months and there seemed to be a little animosity or at least a lack of manners flowing mainly from Suva to Ila. Because I didn’t get another chance to watch them together after that, I was left to mull over possible issues that may have arisen between them and fret that perhaps they weren’t going to make a very good match after all. While we were forced to stay away from the animals, the Volunteers received word through a bi-weekly report we receive from the Learning and Engagement office that Ila had been feeling a bit poorly: vomiting and loose stools and the like at the beginning of April. Obviously, with no way of finding out more about this situation, this wasn’t fantastic news. Soon, though, we learned that an ultrasound had been performed on Ila in mid-April, which surprised me for sure because I was under the impression that she was likely a bit too young to breed just yet. Nothing was seen on the sonogram, though, and that seemed like the end of it.

But it was not the end of it.

Sometime in May, the rumours started to come out that Ila might be pregnant. In June, those rumours were confirmed to the Volunteers on one of the myriad virtual meet-ups the Zoo organized to keep everyone from going stir-crazy, for which I shall be ever-thankful. And then, on June 19 – which was Ila’s second birthday – the Zoo finally made it official on their social media platforms.

“Today our red panda Ila celebrates her 2nd birthday! 🎂🎉 But instead of opening gifts, she decided to give us two! We are over the moon to announce that Ila is pregnant with two cubs! This is the first red panda pregnancy at the Zoo since 1996, and the first pregnancy for Ila...”

(click on the image to read the rest)

They also released this heart-melting photo of the two of them hunkered down together in the Panda House while Ila prepared for the birth:

Suva (left) keeping Ila calm as she awaits her first babies

On July 7, the Zoo sent out an update:

Exactly one week later, the babies arrived. They were announced by the Zoo on July 17:

Unfortunately, Ila is a very young first-time mom and red panda babies are so tiny and fragile in the early days. And so, despite the very best efforts of the Zoo staff and Ila herself, one of the wee ones passed away after a week. However, the second one – after a rough start where Ila seemed to be underproducing milk – is slowly edging out of the danger zone (I very badly want to use an Archer reference here, but I won’t) and the number of supplemental feedings she is now receiving is decreasing steadily. It is the tradition in China to name human babies after 100 days, presumably so they are “out of the woods” enough to be viable at that point. North American Zoos have carried that tradition on for giant panda names; I am hoping the same will hold true for the little girl Ila is bonding with, and that would be October 22. Perhaps we will get to see her by then on exhibit! Here is a small collection of photos I’ve gathered from the Zoo’s social media accounts, as well as a couple of short videos for your enjoyment (make certain your sound is on for the videos).

And while all this is happening behind the scenes, Suva is saving his energy just in case he will meet his daughter anytime soon:

Credit: Toronto Zoo

I shot this photo on “Tongue-Out Tuesday,” so I will allow it

The Zoo began to slowly re-open to foot traffic while the pandas were sheltering in anticipation of the big event. There was a sign posted on the back fence of the exhibit informing visitors passing by of the pregnancy and urging them to keep their voices a bit lower in order to maintain peace and calm in the Panda House while Ila was denning. The sign is still up, but Suva has returned to the exhibit since the birth and this proud papa hasn’t changed one iota. If anything, he actually might seem a little more sociable than he was before March, possibly due to so many months away from the general public that he missed us. In any event, it sure is fun to pass by his yard these days, catch a glimpse of him, and dream about the day when the tiny fuzzball makes her public appearance. And, since the baby news has pretty much highjacked my post this month (not that I am complaining at all), I will leave you with a couple of separate galleries: one with photos of Suva followed by one for Ila, so there will be no issues trying to tell them apart. Next month features an animal whom I have not seen in her “proper” exhibit since shortly after I took the photo that appears, but I’ll save that story for then. In the meantime, I urge you all to check out the Toronto Zoo’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds for updates on #BabyRed and all the other adorable babies that have been born there this year. They have made giant strides in terms of having a presence online and the daily Facebook Live Keeper Talks are, in particular, a wonderful addition. As always, thanks for reading, see you next month, and – oh: WordPress has a new Block Editor that I have used for the very first time this month. I welcome your feedback on whether you liked the new style, or if it perhaps needs some more tweaking.

Oh, one last thing: To find out how you can support the endangered red pandas and other wildlife conservation work at the Zoo, please visit https://www.wildlifeconservancy.ca/donate. Thank you!

Ila (left) and Suva hunting for snacks together