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Royal Oak — The Detroit Zoo, already a fairly rollicking place to be a red panda, officially became 4,000 square feet better Monday.

As the habitat's three resident reds explored their surroundings, officials dedicated a $500,000 expansion of what's now the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest — more than 14,000 square feet of space, with a variety of amenities for the endangered animals and an 80-foot rope bridge for humans.

Having waited patiently through three brief speeches and a ribbon cutting in chilly weather more fitting for red pandas than people, a pack of students from Holy Redeemer Grade School in Detroit became the first to bound across the bridge at one end of the exhibit.

"No jumping, please," zoo CEO Ron Kagan told the kids. "We're not finished with the engineering."

Ultimately, the bridge will also provide a vantage point into a new tiger enclosure, scheduled to open in the summer.

Improvements for the red pandas include a flowing stream, misting areas designed to make cold-weather mammals more comfortable amid Michigan summers, a larger and more challenging pathway through the habitat, and some inviting spots to nest.

Red pandas are a unique bamboo-eating species found in the high forests of Asia — places such as Nepal, northern Myanmar and several provinces in China.

Slightly larger than a housecat, with thicker bodies and long, bushy tails, they have coarse, reddish-brown fur on their upper bodies, black legs, roundish heads, and white faces with russet markings.

The Detroit Zoo is home to females Ta-Shi,13, who has been there since 2008, and Ash, 3, who arrived from the zoo in Garden City, Kansas, in May 2017, along with male Ravi, 2, who was transferred from the zoo in Syracuse, New York, in August 2017.

Only 10,000 red pandas exist in the wild, Kagan said, and principal donor Jonathan Holtzman's devotion to them helps make him "a true visionary for conservation."

Holtzman, 64, of Orchard Lake, founded his wildlife charity in 2015 amid a career built on habitats for humans. He grew Village Green into one of the country's largest apartment companies and is now chairman and CEO of City Club Apartments.

His mother's parents lived across the street from the zoo when he was a child, Holtzman said, and his appreciation for animals grew as he traveled the world with his former wife, Patricia.

"We thought, 'What can we do to make a difference?'" he said. "We were impressed with the scientists and the conservationists who are dedicating their lives to the cause."

Holtzman recently returned from Borneo, he said, where he saw orangutans, sun bears and clouded leopards. The foundation is funding several projects there to help preserve orangutans, part of its focus on reversing human and environmental impact on endangered species.

"Human and wildlife interaction is so valuable," he said, in making people realize the importance and vulnerability of animals. "Zoos make it possible."

nrubin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn

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