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A pair of red pandas at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens got in the true spirit of the 2018 Winter Olympics when they played with a Team USA bobsled.

Red pandas are coming to North Carolina.

The Asheville City Council on April 24 approved $184,820 in funding for a red panda exhibit at the city-owned Western North Carolina Nature Center. The council voted unanimously.

The Friends of the WNC Nature Center will fund 83 percent of the project.

“We’re excited to work with the city to make this project possible," said Kelly Shanafelt, executive director of the group, in a news release. "We have agreed to donate $154,200 toward the construction of this habitat."

Red pandas, native to the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China, are endangered, with fewer than 10,000 living in the wild.

The most successful red panda breeding program in the world is at Zoo Knoxville.

The Nature Center hopes to welcome a red panda this fall and will eventually host a breeding pair.

And it turns out western North Carolina could be an ideal home for red pandas.

Skeletal remains of an ancient ancestor of the red panda have been found at the Gray Fossil Site in Gray, Tenn., according to the nature center, which means creatures similar to today's red pandas could have lived in the mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina.

It helps that the weather matches up to where modern red pandas live.

“The central Asian range of the modern-day red panda is almost identical climate-wise to the Southern Appalachians, so our pandas should feel very much at home in Asheville,” said Chris Gentile, WNC Nature Center director. “The fact that the fossilized remains of their ancestor the Bristol’s Panda have been discovered in Eastern Tennessee indicates that these pandas were once prevalent in our area.”

They are bamboo eaters, so the staff is cultivating a 2-acre plot of the fast-growing grass, Gentile said.

The Friends of the WNC Nature Center already has raised 40 percent of its donation, due in large part to a single family's donation. They were "inspired by the red pandas they visited while on a trip to China,” said Shanafelt.

The group also has been raising money through the sale of red panda-themed merchandise at the gift shop they oversee within the nature center.

The red pandas are the first species to be introduced to the nature center as part of its new Prehistoric Appalachia project.

The red panda has given scientists taxonomic fits, according to National Geographic. It had been classified as a relative of the giant panda, but now researchers believe it as a closer relative to the raccoon. Currently, red pandas are considered members of their own unique family — the Ailuridae.

For more information, or to donate to support the project, go to wildwnc.org/red-panda-campaign.

The Nature Center, at 75 Gashes Creek Road in Asheville, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. Daily admission and season passes are available. For more information, go to wildwnc.org or call 828-259-8080.

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