NAGANO – Ko Tanaka likes to answer questions from children about the nearly 20 red pandas he helps look after at Nagano Chausuyama Zoo.
But he recalls being stumped once when asked if the raccoonlike mammals, also known as lesser pandas, yawn like cats.
Luckily, just then a lesser panda in front of him “yawned and helped me save face,” he recounts.
When the red pandas, one of the zoo’s main attractions, come out of their Forest for Lesser Pandas enclosure, a male named Ron often climbs onto Tanaka’s back.
“Ron is a bit different from the others,” Tanaka, 40, told the visitors who had gathered around him. “Can you see how?”
“His tail is shorter,” a girl answered.
“That’s right,” Tanaka said, before launching into the explanation.
A red panda female usually gives birth to one or two cubs at a time, but Ron’s mother had triplets twice in a row at the zoo and he was one of the second set.
The mother had a hard time raising the cubs and began biting their tails. As Ron seemed to be the main target, Tanaka and the other keepers separated him from his mother and bottle-fed him. Ron therefore feels closer to humans than the other lesser pandas, Tanaka said.
“We first used a feeding bottle for dogs but Ron didn’t drink the milk from it,” he said. “So we used an injector after removing its needle and fed milk to him every two to three hours, day and night, for about three months.”
Tokyo-born Tanaka, who studied at an animal health and management college after finishing high school, moved to the Chausuyama zoo nearly 20 years ago, having first worked on a farm in Nagano Prefecture, and since then has been a red panda keeper.
Chausuyama received a pair of red pandas from Shijiazhuang, Nagano’s sister city in the northeastern Chinese province of Hebei, in an animal exchange program 28 years ago and has since become Japan’s biggest breeding zoo for them. It has donated lesser pandas to other zoos in Japan.
The red panda has the academic Latin name Ailurus fulgens, which essentially means “shining cat,” a reference to its beautiful coat.
“I’ve been a red panda keeper for a long time,” Tanaka said, “and I’m happy that we have so many of them now.”