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People are seeing red at the Louisville Zoo with its newest resident, Sunny D

A red panda looks at the camera. It's tongue it out, licking its lips.
Courtesy the Louisville Zoo
1-year-old Sundara — Sunny D — the red panda is crepuscular, meaning he's most active at dawn and dusk and sleeps much of the daytime hours.

Sundara (Sunny D to his friends) is the new red panda at the Louisville Zoo. The 1-year-old ball of red fur sleeps a lot, but that probably won’t discourage summer crowds from coming to see him.

Picture Glacier Run at the Louisville Zoo. Icy cold water sloshes while a giant polar bear takes a dip. Nearby, the seals and sea lions spin, jump and bark for a fishy treat. And, a bit farther away, there’s a little red ball of fur surrounded by bamboo.

That ball is Sundara – or Sunny D – a 1-year-old red panda whose new home is the zoo. You will often find Sunny D snoozing, because red pandas generally sleep up to 17 hours a day.

Jessica Cunningham is the assistant mammal curator at the Louisville Zoo. She works with the team that cares for Sundara.

“Red pandas are known as crepuscular [which] means they're mainly awake during the dawn hours of the day and the dusk hours of the day,” Cunningham said. “The middle of the afternoon is usually their normal time to be asleep.”

Right now, Sunny D sleeps from about 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. – prime zoo visiting time. He’s taken up residence in the spot where the snowy owls used to live.

The male snowy owl moved to the Oregon Zoo. The female owl is now living at the Maryland Zoo. Both will be paired with a new mate to produce offspring.

“They're doing very well,” Cunningham said.

Sunny D, and other red pandas who live at zoos, are part of the species survival plan program, or SSP. That means a group is working to manage different populations of specific species. Typically, the SSP focuses on endangered species, Cunningham said. Red pandas are currently endangered due to habitat destruction, human interference and poaching.

A red panda stands on his hind legs looking to the corner of the image.
Courtesy the Louisville Zoo
Sunny D may be paired with a mate when he's a little older to help repopulate the species.

The SSP coordinator recommends where animals should move for breeding purposes and to help expand their population, Cunningham said. Once Sunny D is older, he may be recommended to a female mate to help grow the population.

“It's actually more common for red pandas and their natural habitat to be solitary animals unless they were going to meet for breeding,” Cunningham said.

Sunny D is part of the zoo’s effort to educate visitors about conservation and the dangers of trying to acquire wild animals as domestic pets.

“There's a lot of really cute animals that people think would make great pets in their home. Unfortunately, the red panda is one of those,” Cunningham said. “It's always best if you want to get a pet for your home to do your research. Make sure you can take care of them for the full length of their life.”

The total population of red pandas has decreased by roughly 40% in the past two decades, according to Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.

“For red pandas, their numbers are declining,” Cunningham said. “It's very hard for us to know exactly how many are left in their wild population. But we're doing everything we can as zoos to learn more about their species and things we can do to help.”

Cunningham encourages visitors to be considerate of their carbon footprint.

“A lot of our messaging [around conservation] is around habitat loss and destruction in his area,” Cunningham said. “But things that you can do even here in Louisville, even though we live nowhere near Nepal and Tibet, in places where he would live.”

The Louisville Zoo is open daily, year-round. The current hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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