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The National Zoo is a magical place. It’s a liminal space where 600 pound seals paint pictures, frozen hamsters are considered dinner, anesthetizing a sting ray is common practice and red pandas poop glitter (more on that later). It’s the kind of place where knowledge meets fun in the most sensical / nonsensical ways, and it never fails to make us feel like a kid again. On a dark and dreary Monday morning, we found ourselves in that magical place, taking one of those subtly marked “STAFF ONLY” shortcuts and going behind the scenes of the red panda exhibit.

It’s probably been a couple years since you’ve caught up on the saga behind the Zoo’s red panda population, so let’s get you up to speed. If you’ve lived in D.C. since 2013, you probably know about red pandas / care about red pandas because of Rusty, the panda that escaped from his exhibit and was found wandering Adams Morgan the next day. Rusty is now comfortably living at the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, but the clever panda is a perfect example of what it’s like to deal with these creatures all day long. As much as the Internet might love red pandas, not much is known about the species. Before Rusty hopped from a tree and hightailed it out of the Zoo, it was thought that red pandas could jump a maximum of four feet. Rusty could jump five.


Nowadays, the trees in the exhibit have been cut back to stop any would be escape artist, but there’s still a lot to learn about red pandas. Which is why zoo keeper Mariel Lally is spending her morning pouring three different colored glitters into three different cups filled with cut grapes. The folks at Front Royal are looking to do a fecal study on the red pandas, but in order to do that they need to be able to differentiate the poop between Asa, Nutmeg and her son Jackie, the three red pandas currently living in the exhibit. So each of them gets their own special highball of grapes and glitter.


Asa is the dominant personality. A little bit of a queen bee, she’s been at the Zoo since 2015, while Nutmeg and Jackie didn’t move in until January of this year. At first, Nutmeg and Asa got along swimmingly, and even started exhibiting mating behaviors with each other. Unfortunately, after mating season was over, any love between them disappeared and they developed a classic frenemy relationship, which Lally is quick to tell us is normal. Red pandas are quite solitary creatures, which is one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to study them in the wild. As of right now, Asa, Nutmeg and Jackie have been splitting their time outdoors and indoors, so they can have the alone time they need.


Like giant pandas, red pandas mostly snack on bamboo, but the grapes are useful when it comes to training. As with many of the other animals at the Zoo, the red pandas are trained to allow them to participate in medical procedures. Nutmeg is trained for ultrasounds, heart exams (with a stethoscope) and injections. Give these cute little things a grape and they’ll allow you to do (almost) anything.


So the next time you’re wandering through the red panda exhibition, don’t just scan the treetops, take a look at the ground. You might just find a few sparkly pieces of poop.

(Do you love the Zoo? Do you love food like Asa and Nutmeg and Rusty? Get your tickets to ZooFari now! It’s the only food festival in town that takes place in the middle of the Zoo and it’s always a blast.)