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Stalking an elusive YouTube star: The adorkable red panda

Junji, a 2-year-old red panda at the Oglebay Good Zoo, tires of grape handouts and takes a walk around his enclosure. (Molly O Photography)

Giant pandas are cute, sure, but not half as cute as their petite cousins, the red pandas. A favorite in zoos worldwide, the round-faced, button-eyed creatures caper around in trees or nap with their fluffy tails wrapped around them like white-striped sleeping bags. Adorably anthropomorphic, red pandas can even walk on their hind legs with the shaky gait of a toddler. That's according to my favorite YouTube video, anyway, in which a red panda startled by a rock rears up and throws its paws into the air. The video has been viewed nearly 157,000 times, so clearly I'm not alone in my obsession.

One day, while watching red panda videos online, I came across a clip of people — regular people! — petting red pandas at zoo. I did a little research, and discovered that the video was shot at the Oglebay Good Zoo at the Oglebay Resort in Wheeling, W.Va. — less than a five-hour drive from my house in Washington. I immediately brought this to the attention of my skeptical husband.

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"It's a legit, accredited zoo," I assured Steve, who also balked at the $165 price tag. I pressed on with more arguments. "We can bring Molly and the twins," — my cousins who live near there, all of whom are natural redheads, just like the pandas. "The $165 is worth it for the pictures alone."

Unable to refute my ironclad logic, Steve agreed to go. A few months later, we drove to the Oglebay Resort, a sprawling hotel and conference center that includes a golf course, ski slopes and nature center in addition to the Oglebay Good Zoo.

We checked in with an affable young woman who was surprised to hear that we'd driven all the way from the District just to go to the zoo — after all, our home town has a much bigger zoo, with pandas galore. Merely looking at animals from a distance, I wanted to explain, often leaves me feeling unsatisfied; I was hoping for a full-sensory experience, and maybe even a moment of connection with these rare and beautiful creatures. What actually came out of my mouth was, "I want to know what they smell like."

"Huh," the check-in lady replied.

The next morning, we met my cousin Molly and her twin girls, Emma and Aubrey, at the zoo. "Who wants to see some red pandas!" I shouted. "Me!" Aubrey shouted.

Emma looked dubious. "Do they bite?" she asked.

"They are very gentle," a zookeeper responded, not quite answering Emma's question. She then had us pile into a golf cart and drove us to a small concrete building adjacent to the red panda habitat. Before we walked into the building, she introduced the pandas. "Amber is a 12-year-old female, so she's sort of our old lady," she said. "Our newest red panda, Junji, is a 2-year-old male."

She then handed us rubber gloves and told us that we were not allowed to touch the pandas, but that the pandas could touch us.

"It's like strip-club rules," I said, temporarily forgetting that there were children around.

Ignoring my quip, the zookeeper let us in, where we found Amber and Junji sitting on a ledge, waiting patiently for breakfast. Amber stretched and yawned, looking so adorable that I practically swooned. Red pandas, I'm happy to report, are even cuter in person than they are online — though they do have a distinctly musky odor.

The keeper handed the girls purple grapes cut in half, and told them to offer the fruit to the pandas on flat palms. Emma tried first, but the 6-year-old quickly lost her nerve and dropped the grape on the floor. Aubrey held her grape for longer, but she, too, dropped it when Junji surprised her by placing his paw on her arm.

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"Can I try?" I asked, trying appear nonchalant, so that the keeper wouldn't realize that my life goal was to get Junji to touch my arm as he had with Aubrey. I held a grape just a little out of his reach, and the panda stood on his hind legs, gently placed his sharp claw on my arm and pulled my hand down. It took every ounce of my willpower to not scoop Junji up and bury my face in his soft, red fur. I was helped, however, by the surprising weight and power of the panda — this is, after all, an animal that ekes out an existence in the Himalayas, eating birds and eggs as well as bamboo.

The twins eventually warmed up to the pandas. In the end, we humans thoroughly enjoyed the entire 20-minute encounter. The pandas, on the other hand, seemed a little bored. My strip-club analogy was even more apt than I'd expected, though I refrained from mentioning it again.

We reluctantly bid goodbye to the pandas, but our zoo adventure wasn't over yet. For an additional $75, I had splurged on second animal encounter.

"Now we're going to feed otters!" I said to the twins.

I've always thought of otters as goofy, laid-back animals, but that illusion was quickly dispelled. As our keeper led us into a building that reeked of fish, she started giving us directions with the intense cadence of a maximum-security prison guard.

"You must, at all times, stand behind the yellow line," our keeper said. "If you drop a piece of fish, do not bend down and pick it up. Step away from the fish, and let the otter pick it up."

She then opened a door and we walked into the otter enclosure, which included a small river at the front with a plexiglass wall, designed so that visitors could see the otters swim. Other zoo patrons watched jealously from the other side of the wall as our keeper passed us frozen wads of meat and sardines. Two otters scampered back and forth along the yellow line, which they had been trained not to cross.

On the keeper's cue, I tossed a sardine to the larger of the two otters; she caught it in her mouth and swallowed it in a single gulp. Emma threw a chunk of frozen salmon the size of a doorstop into the water, and the other otter sawed through it with remarkable efficiency. These otters were cute, all right, but they had some seriously sharp teeth.

This realization is why, when I accidentally dropped a piece of fish, I jumped away from it like it was a live grenade. One of the otters — in clear violation of the rules — barreled right at me, crossing the yellow line with single-minded focus.

"What's going to happen when we run out of food?" I asked. The answer: We boogied out of there pretty quickly.

After our animal encounters, we spent a little more time exploring the zoo, and we found more opportunities to interact with the animals. There was, for instance, a yard where you could walk among lazy kangaroos without so much as a hint of fence between you and the marsupials. We also visited rainbow-hued lorikeets in an aviary where you could purchase cups of sugar water to feed the birds. This caused them to squabble fiercely over the opportunity to perch — and poop — on our arms and heads.

"Why are they so colorful?" I asked one of the teens on duty. I was wondering if their vivid plumage somehow worked as camouflage in the Australian rain forest.

"Because they're lorikeets," she replied.

Our trip to the Oglebay Good Zoo may not have been educational in the traditional sense of the word, but it certainly clarified something I knew intellectually, but didn't quite appreciate until I saw my favorite animals up close. Nature really is red in tooth and claw. I suspect the otters, the lorikeets and maybe even the red pandas would devour me if the opportunity presented itself. But as a particularly softhearted member of a willfully delusional species, I still want to cuddle them all.

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Oglebay Resort

465 Lodge Dr., Wheeling, W.Va.


The 1,700-acre resort mainly caters to golfers and skiers, but it has a lot to offer animal lovers as well, including hiking trails, horseback riding, a nature center and, of course, the Oglebay Good Zoo. Rooms from $109.

Oglebay Good Zoo

465 Lodge Dr., Wheeling, W.Va


Entry to the zoo costs $9.95 for adults; $5.95 for children ages 3-12; free for younger children. Animal encounters start at $165 for two people, and you can choose from the following animals: ring-tailed lemur; mongoose lemur; kangaroo and wallaby; red panda; and two-toed sloth. A two-animal encounter costs $240. You can bring up to three additional people for $20 each, and all participants must be 5 and older. If you purchase an animal encounter, you can explore the zoo that day for no additional cost.Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, weather permitting.