In the name of storytelling, we experienced red pandas up close at the WNC Nature Center


    Photo: WLOS staff

    Valentine's Day is the perfect day to fall head over heels for the latest addition at the WNC Nature Center.

    The ribbon-cutting for the new red panda exhibit will be held Thursday at noon.

    To make sure you're prepared for the cuteness in store, we experienced the fuzzy range of emotions in the enclosure, in the name of storytelling.

    Yeah right.

    "I'm gonna move this back," says Animal Naturalist Chesley Hollander, moving back a blockade of sorts to keep visitors at bay for now. "We're trying to keep red panda closed off."

    There's still a semblance of secrecy, even if it might be the worst-kept secret at the Nature Center.

    "And we've been allowing them to explore their habitat 'in secret' for the last couple of months," Chesley says, using air quotes.

    "So this is our panda indoor exhibit area," she said, unlocking the door.

    We went backstage to see the Nature Center's fuzzy new rock stars.

    "They're very shy creatures," Hollander said, bringing her magic wand to introduce us to the power panda couple.

    "This is a target stick, so we use this for training purposes," she explained. "What they do is they will touch their nose to this. We ask them to target, so that way we can move them around the exhibit. "

    It works like a charm. She asks them to touch the tip of the stick in exchange for a piece of fruit.

    Phoenix is the male. He's a little introverted, with a dark face.

    Meanwhile, female Leafa's lighter in the face, and about seven pounds heavier than Phoenix.

    Even Chesley Hollander can barely contain herself.

    "They are just so darned cute," she says.

    Photo: WLOS staff

    As in adorable, lovable or enchanting. All the cute synonyms combined may not be enough.

    Turns out Phoenix is a stand-up guy.

    "Stand up," Chesley said as he stood up touched his nose to the target stick. "You got it. Good boy!"

    They're the first animals in the Prehistoric Appalachia exhibit, related to a species that lived in the mountains some five million years ago.

    "An incredible honor, it's a learning curve for sure, just because we haven't had this kind of species before here at the Nature Center," Hollander says. "So it's been a blast to learn from them as much as they're learning from us."

    They're free to roam in and out of a climate-controlled "nighthouse" kept at 70 degrees.

    "So lots of climbing structures, we try to use as much of the vertical space as we can," she said, giving us the grand tour. "Refrigerator to hold their bamboo, which is 90 percent of their diet."

    The fridge is stocked with lots of pre-sliced fruit, too.

    Since November, the Nature Center staff's gone to great lengths to make sure the red pandas will be ready for lots of visitors.

    "We've actually been practicing with large crowds, so we brought all of our staff at once out here to do a program with them and they did wonderful," she said.

    Soon it'll be your turn to rendezvous with the red pandas.

    Whether you describe them as engaging, delightful or darling, chances are they'll leave you grasping for the cutest of words.

    "This is new to natives in Western North Carolina, they don't see this animal," Chesley said. "So to bring something new to the Nature Center is going to draw a lot of people here."

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