BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Rochan the red panda pranced around his enclosure at the Beardsley Zoo on Tuesday, trying to beat the heat in the sun-dappled shade.
Little did he know that, just across the zoo, officials were breaking ground on his new digs — a 4,000-square-foot exhibit that will mean the fluffy little guy can munch bamboo in treetop lounging spots or duck into an air-conditioned space within full view of zoo-goers.
Set to open in spring 2018, the new $275,000 exhibit comes, in large part, due to a substantial donation from longtime zoo members Bob and Helen Natt.
“We really appreciate the opportunity to help the zoo,” said Bob Natt. “It’s probably one of the greatest places in Connecticut.”
The zoo also received a matching grant for money raised by supporter donations from the Werth Family Foundation, said Zoo Director Gregg Dancho.
Originally a temporary visitor while his exhibit at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston was undergoing renovations, Rochan has become a permanent member of the Beardsley family. He has been living in an enclosure near the exit of the South American rainforest building since 2015.
The new Natt Family Red Panda Pavilion will feature a yard landscaped with bamboo — Rochan eats approximately 1,000 bamboo leaves a day — with plenty of spots for sunbathing.
Red pandas resemble raccoons, are solitary animals and are nocturnal by nature. Like their larger black-and-white cousins, they primarily eat bamboo but will nosh on fruits, berries, young leaves and certain tree bark.
Hailing from the Himalayas and the mountain ranges of southwest China, Red pandas prefer colder climates. Hence, the air-conditioning.
Rochan, which means “light,” “brilliant” and “celebrated” in Hindi, is 3 years old and weighs nearly 15 pounds.
There’s one thing Rochan would celebrate: a mate. The zoo has a request out for a female red panda and hopes to have one ready for the new habitat.
Dancho said he hopes to eventually build a string of cold-weather Asian habitats along the path that will house the pandas. He’s on the lookout for Asian birds and deer that might be able to share the panda’s space.
“If we’re going to build an exhibit like this, I would love to make mixed exhibits,” he said.
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