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Rolling out red (panda) carpet:

Red River Zoo officials welcomed Chang Tan, a well-traveled 3-year-old male red panda from Staten Island, N.Y., at Fargo's Hector International Airport on Wednesday.

Red River Zoo officials welcomed Chang Tan, a well-traveled 3-year-old male red panda from Staten Island, N.Y., at Fargo's Hector International Airport on Wednesday.

The panda is on loan from the Cincinnati Zoo and will be paired with Jiao Mei, a 5-year-old female red panda who has given birth to four cubs.

Re-establishing a successful breeding program was the reason for Chang Tan's long-awaited arrival, said Paula Grimestad, the zoo's executive director.

"It's so critical that pandas are bred in North America," Grimestad said. "They're endangered."

Chinese red pandas are small cat-like animals that primarily eat bamboo shoots and leaves and typically live eight years in the wild and 15 years in zoos, according to zoo.org.

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The Red River Zoo began searching for a male red panda after its only male died of heart failure in early 2004. His death led to a domino effect at the zoo, said Animal Collection Manager Mike Schmidt. The remaining female red panda was shipped to a zoo in Nashville, Tenn., in December 2004. Jiao Mei replaced that female two months later.

Schmidt said Chang Tan will be quarantined for 30 days before meeting Jiao Mei, in order to combat any illness or disease triggered by stress from traveling.

Traveling can take its toll on pandas. Schmidt said the zoo was close to returning Jiao Mei to the Cincinnati Zoo because she refused to eat and lost 2 pounds during her first month at the Fargo zoo

Once acclimated, Chang Tan will be put in a holding area next to Jiao Mei separated by mesh fences. Red pandas typically breed in mid-February, the zoo said.

"We haven't had babies since 2002. I'm really looking forward to breeding again," said Marcy Thompson, lead red panda trainer at the zoo.

Jiao Mei and Chang Tan are among 40 red pandas in North America. They were sent to the Red River Zoo on the recommendation of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's Species Survival Plan program, whose mission is to ensure the survival of selected wildlife species.

The program recommended 14 breeding pairs in 2006, including Jiao Mei and Chang Tan. The goal is to maintain 150 red pandas in North America.

The program recommended Chang Tan in August, although Schmidt said his arrival wasn't cemented until two weeks ago.

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His arrival is good news to spurring the red panda population. Only three - one in Cincinnati and two in Winnipeg - were born in 2005, Schmidt said.

"We've been one of only three zoos that have successfully been breeding styani red pandas for the past five years," Grimestad said.

Chang Tan and Jiao Mei are in the prime of their breeding lives - ages 2 to 6 - Grimestad said. The zoo owns three female and one male red panda, all loaned to other zoos.

The Red River Zoo wants to add two more red pandas from China or Japan in the next year, with the help of the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo, Schmidt said.

Red pandas from China or Japan offer a new bloodline of breeding, Schmidt said.

"We'd like to have them in by next breeding season, with hopes of offspring in the summer of 2007," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Joe Whetham at (701) 241-5557

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