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Close Encounters of the Red Kind

With Three Well-Loved Red Pandas at Wellington Zoo

I've been trying to get more creative with my gift giving over the last 18 months. It hasn't been easy.

Recently, when my Darling Dad turned 75, I avoided all the books, chocolates and monogrammed pens that I would normally look at (and all the golfing, fishing and outdoorsy stuff that I wouldn't), and made the decision to book in a fun Daddy-Daughter experience to celebrate the big day.

I looked for inspiration by thinking about the fun things we had done together when I was a child. We used to visit the zoo together when my brother and I were young and while we loved seeing the apes and the giraffes, Dad always had a soft spot for the big cats (and other assorted fluffy things like pandas).

So, for his birthday I tossed up the idea of lunch at a cat cafe or a volunteer day at the local SPCA (a trip to China was a little out of the budget) but when I stumbled upon our local zoo's website I found the perfect gift. A close encounter!

Wellington Zoo offers six close encounters, each with a different animal. From Lions to Meerkats, there is something to please almost everyone and I knew a trip to see the red pandas would please both me and my dad a whole lot (I am also a fan of cute and fluffy...). So, we booked a close encounter with the red panda family.

The agenda of a close encounter differs depending on which animal you visit. For the red pandas, it means getting right into their habitat with a bowl of yummy treats—mostly grapes, in our case—and letting each of the three red pandas clamber across your laps and eat from your hands (you can see why this approach wouldn't work with the lions, right?!). It takes about 30 minutes, happens once a day, and is limited to only four people per session, plus at least one if not two qualified zoo staff who know the pandas and help keep them safe.

We spent about ten minutes in each of the three habitats, learning about the red pandas and their homes in Nepal. They spend a lot of time sleeping and grooming themselves, and I respect that about them! Once the pandas worked out that we came with gifts, in the form of fruit, they made their way down from the treetops to see us.

We sat quietly in a row, each holding on to some grapes and let the pandas come to us. They were gentle, although you certainly could feel their claws on your legs! While they look soft and bushy we were able to pat them and found their fur to be much coarser than it looks.

Just like so many animals, once the treats ran out, the pandas lost all interest in us and made their way back up their respective trees for an afternoon nap.

At just under $NZD100 per person for 30 minutes, the price tag felt a little steep. However, once we got to enjoy the company of those little bushy-tailed delights every cent felt worth it. The other great news is that at least 10% of the cost that goes straight to the Wellington Zoo conservation fund who do loads of great work to save red pandas in the wild.

Once you're in the zoo, and you've done your close encounter, you're then free to roam, so Dad and I wandered the walkways for hours, 'oooh-ing' and 'aaahing' at how modern the zoo has become. In fact, it's well worth a visit the next time you're in Wellington, even without forking out for a close encounter.

Dad and I were even more delighted when we left the zoo to receive an invitation to come back and do another close encounter at a discounted cost. We jumped at the chance and booked in a trip to see the cheetahs, but that's a story for another day...

If you're keen to hear about another zoo adventure I took, check out my review of the Edinburgh Zoo Chinese Lanterns.

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