Revel in the red panda experience at the Columbus Zoo

We love animals of all kinds in our family.

That’s why I’m always very tempted by the Columbus Zoo’s special behind-the-scenes, VIP animal encounters.

These zoo critter experiences are never cheap ($99 per person), but all the money goes to the zoo and its conservation efforts, which is obviously a great cause.

Still, I hadn’t pulled the trigger on any VIP animal encounters up until this year.

I have seen awesome photos on Facebook from friends who have gotten up close and personal with the zoo’s new seals and sea lions. I was also tempted to splurge on bathtime with the elephants – how fun does that sound?

But the one that ultimately got me to hand over my credit card was the red panda experience. Because who doesn’t love adorable, fluffy and mischievous red pandas?

Look, tweens and teens are notoriously hard to bond with. So many of the fun things Journey and I used to do together are duds to the kiddo now. But how could they resist an offer to go spend time up close with the Columbus Zoo’s red pandas? They couldn’t.

Score one for mom for coming up with an activity we can do together that they absolutely, positively wouldn’t say no to!

And kudos to the Columbus Zoo for having such great behind-the-scenes animal encounters available to both raise money for the zoo and give patrons an amazing experience.

Our Red Panda Experience

On the morning of our red panda encounter, I got a call from Erin, the zoo’s experience leader. She let me know what to expect; that we can take pictures and videos but no selfies while we’re actually hand-feeding the red pandas, and that we’ll be going inside their actual enclosure where it could be icy or slippery underfoot. I assured her we would dress appropriately.

She also explained where the meeting place is to go into the red panda enclosure – but fortunately, we know our zoo well so I already had a pretty good idea.

We were so excited walking into a nearly empty zoo on a very cold Friday! It’s worth noting that your experience fees do not include membership or daily admission, so that is an additional cost if you’re not already zoo members.

We went straight to the red panda enclosure in Asia Quest, with just a brief stop first to see the seals and sea lions in Discovery Cove because we could hear them barking and calling to us as we walked in. That new exhibit is an absolute treasure, if you haven’t seen it yet.

Once at the red panda enclosure, we were delighted to see two gorgeous red pandas putting on quite a show. They clearly knew it was almost snack time. They were extremely active; it’s clear they love this cold weather. When we go to the zoo in the summer, they’re nearly always sleeping.

Erin met us at the enclosure and told us the deal: no petting the red pandas, but be prepared for them to pet us! She told us how to feed them their little veggie biscuits and cautioned us to bend over but not squat all the way down, lest the pandas try to climb us like a tree (although both Journey and I quite liked the sound of being scaled by an adorable red panda).

Soon enough, it was time. We went into the red panda enclosure with their lead keeper and Erin. We were each given a little bowl of red biscuits and the red pandas immediately greeted us in a very calm and friendly way.

This was definitely one of my favorite animal encounters we’ve ever experienced, as the care and well-being of the animals were first and foremost but we still got an amazing, up-close and very personal visit with the red pandas!

Journey took some great videos while feeding the red pandas. I gave Erin my phone and she took terrific photos of both Journey and I feeding the little red critters.

And then, at the end, we got a special treat: Journey and I got to pose with our new little buddies for the unique portrait you see above. We’ll treasure this experience and our photos and videos always!

We learned a lot about these beautiful, rare animals. Red pandas are pretty silent critters except when they’re alone in their exhibit together, and then they make cute little squeaky trills that almost sounded like a tiny stallion whinnying.

They have retractable claws like a cat, but they always stay out and visible somewhat, like a dog. They are great climbers but don’t do much jumping or leaping.

They are solitary creatures for the most part, but also enjoy company in a zoo setting. The keeper said the red pandas seem to enjoy having visitors come in and feed them snacks. They certainly were all over us to get their treats; I really enjoyed having their little paws on me and seeing one red panda almost climb Journey’s legs.

It was an unforgettable experience and one which I wholeheartedly recommend to other animal lovers. I liked red pandas before, but now they are absolutely one of my all-time favorite animals. They are just precious up close!

And yes, of course, we had to stop in the zoo gift shop on the way out to see if they had a stuffed red panda. I couldn’t resist getting it for Journey. How much longer will the kiddo even care about stuffed animals? And I love that they wanted a memory of our special day together.

If you’ve got a tween or teen who is getting harder to buy for at Christmas and birthday time, I highly recommend this Columbus Zoo experience. We both felt it was worth the cost.

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About the author

Proud and loving midlife mama. Lucky and devoted wife. Dog, cat and snake mom. Travel nut. Natural born writer. PR and social media pro by day - tattoo doula by night.
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