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Rare red pandas welcome triplet babies

Red pandas Shan Tou and Yukiko are the proud parents of triplets born at the Red River Zoo in Fargo, N.D. These cubs are a big deal; only five red pandas were born in all of North America in 2008.
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Three cheers for Shan Tou and Yukiko! The rare red panda couple are the proud parents of triplets born at the Red River Zoo in Fargo, N.D., on June 11.

And the still-to-be-named panda babies are quite the big deal. "The last time triplets were born in North America was 10 years [ago]," the zoo's animal keeper, Marcy Thompson, tells PEOPLE Pets, adding that last year the pair had twins — two of the five red pandas born in all of North America in 2008.

Shan Tou may look like a cuddly raccoon, but she and her mate are actually a unique species found in the Himalayan mountains of India, Nepal, Burma and China. Red pandas typically have one or two cubs, says Thompson, so they were thrilled when three cream-colored balls of fluff arrived just before Father's Day. (Their reddish-brown fur will fully grow in when they're around 2 months old.)

Shan Tou and Yukiko, who are almost 5 years old, were set up on a blind date about three years ago when they were imported to the Red River Zoo from two separate facilities in Japan. "We introduced them here," says Thompson. "Luckily, they worked out well. We’re excited to think that maybe we've got a good pair here and they'll be producing lots."

Right now, the panda family is off exhibit as Shan Tou cares for her babies in a nest box, where they will stay for up to 90 days. Thompson, who is the only person allowed in the nesting area, reports on her blog that Mom is doing an amazing job and that she's very protective of the cubs and stays with them most of the day.

"When the babies are born they're quite helpless," says Thompson. "They're born with their eyes and ears closed.”

The Red River Zoo now has nine Chinese red pandas, the most of any zoo in the nation. Thompson hopes that the public will be able to catch a glimpse of the happy family in mid-August. For now, she's busy thinking of names for the triplets: "I might do Japanese names since their parents are from Japan," she says.