These red pandas are your typical New York family.
On an average day, the mother, whose name is Beilei, watches over her twin daughter and son as they roughhouse around the yard, working on the coordination. But so far, their dad, Qin, has remained aloof from his kids. The family gets some of its food from home, but it often relies on takeout — from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
“Dad climbs to the top of the tree and says ‘Leave me alone,’ ” said Denise McClean, director of the Prospect Park Zoo. “But now that they can climb, they do not always leave him alone.”
Last week, the zoo introduced its newest residents, twin red panda cubs who were born in late June and are now ready for their close-up. In the wild, red pandas — who are more closely related to weasels than giant pandas — are solitary creatures, making for cold family life. Once the breeding is over, the kids will stay with their mother until they are mature while the father keeps his distance, which is why the zoo is keeping Qin mostly separated from his panda progeny.
“You never know how the father will react,” said McClean. “So far, he has not shown much interest.”
Beilei, on the other hand, has been a very hands-on mother, even when her kids are raucously jumping around — which is most of the time.
“She’s been a great mom,” said McClean. “Sometimes they are not, but she knew what to do right from the first day.”
The kids were born on June 22 to Beilei, who is the zoo’s only female. The zookeepers had no way to tell for sure that she was pregnant, but they suspected as much.
“Her belly got bigger,” said McClean. “But it could have just been that she was getting fat.”
One day, Beilei’s zookeeper walked in and found the mother huddled around her babies, who were then the size of softballs.
The boy looks more like his mom while the girl’s tail kinks like her dad’s. The park has not yet named the cubs and are hoping that a donor will pay for the privilege.
Zoos across the world often trade red pandas to foster genetic diversity in the vulnerable species. But science can only do so much if nature will not take its course and, let us tell you, pandas take their time getting down to reproductive business. For the Prospect Park Zoo, it took 20 years and a steadily revolving cast of red panda pairs to finally get some results.
“Births are really exciting when you have been trying as long as we have,” said McClean.
Zoos breed red pandas so that they do not need to trap them in the wild. But even a baby boom behind the menagerie’s fences would not benefit the species, which has a worldwide population of about 10,000 primarily due to deforestation, because the cubs bred in captivity will never be released.
Eventually, the two little ones will go off to other zoos to mate and make more red panda babies. But, for now, they seem happy enough at home.