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Fargo zoo can't hurry panda love

A baby Chinese red panda walks out of a hollow log at the Red River Zoo in Fargo. Dave Wallis / The Forum

At first blush, it seems that speed dating for the Red River Zoo's red pandas should be timed with a calendar rather than a clock.

Zoo Executive Director Paula Grimestad says patience is the key. With pandas and procreation, you can't hurry love, you just have to wait.

"The middle of February, is when all of that happens," Grimestad said. "They sure should be getting in the mood."

Take the case of Rusty.

Persistence pays off is apparently his mating motto.

The normally devout bachelor has made it his mission to follow Jiao Mei around the red panda pen at the Fargo zoo.

"He's been following her really, really close. He seems definitely more interested in her," said Marcy Thompson, the lead panda keeper.

So far, Jiao Mei just isn't that into him, said Thompson, who is closely monitoring her charges.

But, she changed her mind last year, Thompson said. With an endangered species like red pandas, there's always hope for a little late-winter magic.

"She has had babies in the beginning of July before," Thompson said. "We're keeping an eye on her. She's still playing coy."

It's also been a no go for Shan Tou and Yukiko, last year's successful breeding pair.

Still, it's hoped romance will take a moonlight turn.

"The other pair, it's hard to tell," Thompson said. "We didn't see anything last year, and lo and behold, they had twins," Thompson said.

Little victories

Pandas are cycled in and out of the Red River Zoo as part of the Species Survival Plan, the endangered species version of

That was Chang Tan's fate. He was a fifth wheel in Fargo, and since pandas don't need a wing man, he was moved to another zoo.

"Poor guy, we were hoping a female would become available, but there wasn't one," Grimestad said.

Sarah Glass, the SSP coordinator for red pandas and a curator at Tennessee's Knoxville Zoo, said Fargo has "done very, very well with cubs," particularly from the styani subspecies.

Last year, Red River Zoo saw two cubs born, a female named Li Ming, and a male named Xiao Li. Grimestad said the SSP has already made plans for where they will be sent to continue the breeding program.

While styani red pandas get some protection in China, as much of their range dovetails with the protected giant panda, they comprise but 40 of the roughly 180 red pandas in U.S. and Canadian zoos, Glass said.

"Every styani baby we can get is a nice little victory for us," Glass said.

Meanwhile, there are other zoo babies for patrons to watch for, Grimestad said.

"We're expecting a new camel calf, probably within this month. A little early birth this year," she said.

This spring Grimestad expects porcupine and prairie dog litters "and hopefully, white-lipped deer babies."