By Hannah Sarney
A slice of pear between my index finger and thumb, I gingerly held out my hand and held my breath. Little claws hooked into my stockings and an enormous grin spread across my face as a red panda took a bite.
Reka is one of Wellington Zoo's five red pandas. She's rather on the tubby side, so it wasn't difficult to lure her in for pats with fruity treats.
While all 'Close Encounter' participants are allowed into the enclosure, getting within touching distance is entirely up to how obliging/hungry the animals are feeling.
Jay, Ishah and Manasa all came down from the trees for a nibble, while Amy chose to wrap her big, bushy tail around her face a little tighter and continued to snooze.
It was an extraordinary experience that is available to anyone willing to hand over a few dollars to Wellington Zoo.
Your money goes into supporting the zoo's operating costs, such as caring for the animals and education programmes. Ten percent of the proceeds go into the Wellington Conservation Fund - supporting conservation projects both in the field and at the zoo.
"We need the support of our community to ensure we can create a place where people can connect with animals and understand their place in the world," says the zoo's chief executive Karen Fifield.
The Close Encounters allow visitors the chance to have almost one-on-one question and answer time with one or more of the zoo's keepers. You walk away filled with facts.
Red pandas can be found in the wild in Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, and Nepal.
They can consume up to 45 percent of their own body weight while munching on approximately 200,000 bamboo leaves each day. However, unlike giant pandas, they also have a taste for fruit, acorns, roots, and eggs.
A bamboo diet has low energy content, so red pandas spend most of their day resting in trees. They become most active in the early morning and late afternoon.
Red pandas are only in season for one day a year - typically giving birth around Christmas Day at Wellington Zoo.
Red pandas are classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN because their population is estimated to include less than 10,000 mature individuals. Their numbers are continuing to decline mainly due to habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and inbreeding depression.
An "I survived a red panda encounter at Wellington Zoo" certificate is now proudly pinned above my desk. Let's hope we are able to ensure the continued survival of the red panda species.