In 2022, Pixar released ‘Turning Red’ — and animators used San Francisco Zoo’s red pandas as reference points for the distant bear cousins, which helped portray the trials of the character’s journey navigating puberty.
Red pandas are bite-the-back-of-your-hand adorable. Anyone who thinks otherwise clearly has sociopathic tendencies. Or worse: They’re an individual who takes cruel pride in saying “the only good [insert exotic animal] is a [dead example of said inserted exotic animal].”
With less than 10,000 red pandas known to science, the small mammals — distant evolutionary cousins to the Ursidae family, which contains all the modern-day bear species — mostly exist in the Eastern Himalayas, where now 50% of their endemic habitat has been lost to a combination of human-facilitated deforestation and human-caused climate change. Illegal capture for the pet trade and poaching also remain active threats.
Given how the very existence of red pandas on this space rock remains uncomfortably precarious, captive breeding and rearing programs for them remain essential to their survival. These conservation strategies, without hyperbole, offer genetic bastions for the pandas… should human greed and the climate crisis wipe the raccoon-like animals out in the wild.
But much like how Finding Nemo and Finding Dory spurred ocean protection efforts across the world, Turning Red — Pixar’s 2022 film that sees its protagonist, Mei, discover a welter of new emotions that cause her transformation into a big fluffy red panda when overwhelmed — could have a similar effect on red panda conservation.
For those keen to see the lil’ ten-ish-pound bundles of charisma live out their best lives, pay a visit to the San Francisco Zoo’s red panda exhibit located inside its Exploration Zone. And fun fact: The very pandas on display played a vital role in the development of Turning Red.
“Did you know that the [Pixar] animators visited [San Francisco] multiple times over the past few years to get inspiration for creating the red panda in [‘Turning Red’]?” reads a caption from the zoological institution on Instagram posted last year. In order to understand how the creatures move, animators took painstaking notes, videos, and more to extrapolate those understandings into 3D animation software, helping to create an on-screen panda that mirrored the life-like movements seen in real ones.
Pixar being the pinnacle of animated excellence, Turning Red quickly garnered widespread critical acclaim upon its release; the film was lauded for its honest portrayal of the “messiness of adolescence” — and “unapologetic period talk.”
“Make sure to watch this incredible film, out now on Disney+, and then come out for a visit to see our very own red pandas,” the caption continues, after having previously exclaimed “Red Pandas, FTW!”
We’re very inclined to agree with that aforementioned sentiment, absolutely.
For more information on red pandas, including their conservation status, largest environmental threats, and why they’re considered a cornerstone of biodiversity where found, visit worldwildlife.org/species/red-panda.