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Red panda mom Shan Tou curls up with her triplet babies Friday at the Red River Zoo in Fargo. Photos by Carrie Snyder / The Forum

3 cubs, 1 big surprise: Triplet pandas born at Fargo zoo a rarity

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It's a panda-rama at Fargo's Red River Zoo.

One of the zoo's two mating pairs of Chinese red pandas produced triplet cubs on June 11.

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Red pandas often have one or two cubs, but triplets are rare, and especially welcome, given the animals' endangered status, zoo officials said Friday.

"This is huge. Last year there were five born in North America, and we had the twins, so we did really well last year, too," Red River Zoo Executive Director Paula Grimestad said.

Panda mama Shan Tou gave birth to one cub quietly while on exhibit, then stole inside her nesting area with the baby, zookeepers said. The other two cubs were born shortly thereafter.

"It is unusual. We always say pandas can have up to three babies, but it's very rare that they do. It's been 10 years since the last triplets have been born in the Western Hemisphere," said Marcy Thompson, the zoo's lead panda keeper.

Thompson said Shan Tou and panda papa, Yukiko, were not presumed to be having babies.

"I was wondering. I tend to be a little bit of a pessimist. I don't like to get my hopes up. So, yeah, it was like, 'I don't know if she's going to give birth this year.' But then she surprised me," she said.

The two females and one male are not yet named, Thompson said.

One of the females was 124 grams at birth and has shot up to 232 grams, Thompson said. The other two started at 120 and 100 grams, and are now 168 grams and 166 grams, she said.

The babies are perhaps 5 inches long and their fur is white, flecked with black and tan. It will be a month before it turns the familiar red of the adults.

Shan Tou carefully guarded them with her body in her aerial nest Friday, while Thompson fed her fresh bamboo.

Grimestad said it will be the end of August before the cubs go on exhibit. In the meantime, she would like to film the babies feeding and playing and play the video on a monitor by the panda exhibit.

While the babies won't be seen this weekend, proud papa Yukiko will be available for Father's Day viewing, Grimestad said.

This is the second successful birth for Shan Tou and Yukiko. They produced two cubs last year, a male and female named Xiao Li and Li Ming, which are both still at the zoo.

It's still not known if the zoo's other breeding pair, Rusty and Jiao Mei, will produce cubs. Gestation times could leave that to be pondered until early July.

Currently, the zoo's panda population is nine.

"We have the most pandas of any zoo in the Western Hemisphere, too, so that's really exciting," Grimestad said.

If panda pregnancies turn out to be pandemic, then the panda pen may get pretty packed.

"It could get very interesting" in terms of space, Thompson said. "Next year we could have three pairs for breeding. We're going to have to have a hotel."

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