Red delight

Will Simon, a Himalayan Red Panda, adjust to the Jerusalem Hills?

red panda 88 (photo credit: )
red panda 88
(photo credit: )
The Middle East is a strange place for a Himalayan Red Panda but Jerusalem Zoo keepers are doing their best to make Simon the panda as comfortable as possible. As his name suggests, Simon is not black and white but red almost-all- over. No larger than a medium-sized dog, Simon has a white nose, a large round face and white ears and is covered with a thick red fur that goes all the way to end of his bushy tail. The overall effect is that of a souvenir toy. Being a nocturnal animal, Simon is most active in the dark, when he explores the large tree that dominates his enclosure. During the day, he sleeps. His lethargic daytime activity can be a disappointment to the other curious mammals that come to see him. In the past, for most of the day, all that was on show was the dimly-seen furry outline hidden inside a hutch. A hutch containing a panda when viewed from the exterior is just like any other hutch and impatient visitors would lob pebbles and carob nuts in an attempt to stir some life into the slumbering Simon. As a compromise, keepers lowered the hutch and painted the inside white to contrast Simon's magnificent fur, making him easier to see and negating the need for any prompting. However, as a precaution, a member of the zoo's staff is stationed at the enclosure all day to prevent any further attempts to divert the course of nature. Simon hails from the Himalayan Mountains, where the air is cool and his fur coat would make him much sought after by hunters. Before arriving in Jerusalem over a year ago, Simon lived at the Singapore Zoo where he enjoyed life in an air-conditioned night-enclosure. However, pandas prefer a solitary social structure and Simon was the victim of persistent bullying by other residents of his enclosure. Separation was the answer, and with several thousand kilometers between him and his former antagonists, Simon can now enjoy a quiet life. Although his open enclosure is exposed to the elements, including the harsh Middle Eastern summer, a large desert fan blowing on his hutch keeps temperatures at a bearable level until winter comes. "That is his happy time," says Simon's keeper and head of the zoo's carnivore section, Dennis Smith. Pandas are a curious conundrum for naturalists because they display the properties of a variety of animals, making their classification a tricky problem. Although he looks like a raccoon, the current opinion is that Simon is of the bear species. Pandas eat bamboo - and lots of it. Out in the wild, Simon could munch his way through 200,000 leaves a night although small birds, eggs or insects might also tempt him. Finding over 100,000 bamboo leaves in Jerusalem would take more than a night's work, so Simon is pampered with smaller, but more efficient meals. Breakfast, taken in the early evening, combines an apple or pear with a freshly picked bamboo-leaf dessert from the elephant enclosure. Dinner, at about 7:30 in the morning is a boiled egg, some monkey 'chow' and a slice of brown bread. Aside from nourishment the food serves another purpose. Unbeknown to Simon, his egg is laced with a drug cocktail to prevent parasitic worms from attacking his heart or stomach. But it is the mental stress of zoo life that has keepers most concerned. The alternative climate and stage fright endured while eating breakfast in front of hordes of rowdy spectators may be too much for a red panda's shy nature. To discover just how well Simon is adjusting zookeepers are administering a stress test. As either an oral interview or written questionnaire are impractical due to the language barrier, keepers opted for a stool test. Every day for the past six months, Smith has dutifully collected that which Simon no longer needs so that it can be examined in a laboratory for signs of stress. If his current lifestyle is indeed too wild, then Simon will be moved back to the quarantine enclosure until a more suitable display area is prepared. In the meantime, the best time to see Simon - when he isn't curled up and snoring - is at 6:30 pm when breakfast is served followed by some careful self-grooming of that remarkable fur.