There are so many attractions that are one-of-a-kind in Central New York, including the Adirondack Mountains, The Stanley Theatre, and The Boilermaker. There's one, though, that attracts people from across the country. 

The Utica Zoo's Red Panda Encounter brings in visitors from all over the country. And it's not just that they headed to the Zoo as a random part of a visit; they actually plan trips that may take hours just to hand feed the little guys a treat.

According to the Utica Zoo, this is their most popular animal encounter; 2017 is fully booked, and a waiting list for 2018 is already forming.

It's not just about fun and fluffy pandas though, there's a serious reason for these encounters: conservation. According to Beth Ricci, the Zoo Area Manager:

Red pandas are the lesser known panda but were discovered by researchers years before the giant panda. There are two subspecies of red panda and they are the only species in their family group which makes them so unique. The subspecies at Utica Zoo are native to China and Northern Myanmar. They eat a high fiber diet of bamboo which we are able to grow here on zoo grounds. Unfortunately, they are losing habitat at an alarming rate due to deforestation, the pet trade and for their pelts. Though their fur is beautiful, we think you would agree that it looks better on a red panda! Scientists have estimated that there are likely less than 10,000 red pandas left in their native habitat, though the number could be much smaller. We work with the Red Panda Species Survival Plan to help maintain a genetically diverse population of red pandas in zoos. We also support the Red Panda Network, which is an organization that does work on the ground in China and Nepal to help conserve forest, and provides educational materials to people in those range countries. Red pandas are just as cool (we think cooler) than the giant panda and they need all of our help to survive. Our everyday choices in products we buy and organizations we support are what will make the difference in saving these and other species across the globe.

Visitors have traveled from as far away as San Jose, California, Houston, Texas and Chicago, Illinois. According to Mike Beck, Communications Coordinator for the Utica Zoo:

The Utica Zoo is the #1 place in the Northeast to hand feed a red panda...lots of people are visiting from the New York City and Boston areas.

Check out the map to see where everyone is coming from.

Check out the video that has gotten hundred of thousands of views on Buzzfeed:

People love their Red Panda encounters:

If you'd like to book a visit with the pandas, bring your camera. $180 total for up to two people age 12+, and zoo admission is included. An encounter usually lasts 20 to 30 minutes. Only two red panda encounters are offered per week via the Species Survival Plan. Email for availability and booking. You must book at least one week in advance and place a deposit. That deposit is non-refundable.

If for some reason Red Pandas aren't your thing, you can also have an encounter with African Lions, California Sea Lions, or Camels.

Next time someone tells you that there's nothing to do here in Utica, remember that people are coming from all over the United States just to visit our Zoo, and to feed our pandas.