The cutest animals at the Atascadero zoo get a $1 million new exhibit

Charles Paddock Zoo in Atascadero will welcome a long-awaited new exhibit on Saturday — bringing a trio of red pandas and 10 new animal species to the park.

The Thelma Vetter Red Panda Experience — which has been in the works since 2015 — will officially open as part of a larger exhibit showcasing animals from the Indo Burma region.

Red pandas are native to the eastern Himalayas and look like a cross between a cat and a bear. They spend a lot of their time in trees and use their bushy tails for balance.

The exhibit, which cost more than $1 million, is part of the zoo’s effort to update its animal enclosures, many of which were built a long time ago, said Alan Baker, zoo director.

The Thelma Vetter Red Panda Experience is a new exhibit at the Atascadero Zoo features three males red pandas. The exhibit has been in the works for about four years. Photo by Joe Johnston 03-01-19 Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The money for the exhibit was donated by animal-lover Thelma Vetter, a longtime Atascadero resident who died in 2009 at age 91.

“This is our first chance to move part of the zoo into a modern zoo-type era,” he said.

The zoo is in the process of building five “biodiversity hotspots,” which will feature endangered species from around the world. In addition to Indo Burma, exhibits will showcase animals from West Africa, the Andes region of South America, California and Madagascar.

The Madagascar hotspot was completed in 2016, and includes lemurs, black parrots, tomato frogs and pardalis chameleons.

The new exhibit’s opening will mark the red panda’s return to the zoo. The last time the animal was on display was more than a year ago, before it was sent to another zoo for breeding, Baker said.

The zoo partners with others to share animals — this time Atascadero will get three adolescent male red pandas, he said.

The Indo Burma exhibit will also feature a binturong (known as the “Asian bearcat”), Chinese muntjac (a small deer), Asian brown tortoise, Asian ratsnake and Nicobar pigeon, among other animals.

The zoo’s Malayan tiger and Prevost’s squirrel, already on display, will also join the exhibit.

“It’s a really unique experience,” Baker said.

For more information about the zoo, visit charlespaddockzoo.org.

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Lindsey Holden writes about housing, North County communities and everything in between for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. She became a staff writer in 2016 after working for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. Lindsey is a native Californian raised in the Midwest and earned degrees from DePaul and Northwestern universities.