Now, according to recent fossil findings, it appears the enigmatic red cousin to the black-and-white panda once roamed the long-ago forests of Tennessee.
Red pandas currently live in various zoos around America, captivating the public and causing children to beg their parents to buy them one as a household pet.
It's here, at the Gray Fossil Site, where a startling number of mammal bones have been uncovered, including a saber-toothed cat, ground sloth, rhinoceros, alligator, camel, shovel-tusked elephant, Eurasian badger and a red panda, dating back more than 4 million years to the period known as the late Miocene era.
"They were all found here. I think our list right now is over 40 different kinds of vertebrates," paleontologist Steven Wallace told AOL News. "For example, we've already pulled almost two complete rhino skeletons. Rhinos actually had a pretty long history in North America, but they went extinct about 4½ million years ago, so that's our minimum age for this site."
The site was a former sinkhole that became a pond, covering about 5 acres and discovered during a road construction project in 2000.
"They brought in a lot of geotechnical engineers who noticed that not only was this unusual material, but it was full of bones," said Wallace, the scientific team leader who is also with the Department of Geosciences at East Tennessee State University.
But it's the red panda that's getting all the attention. A fossilized red panda tooth was discovered at the site in 2004.
"Since that time, we found a complete lower jaw of the panda, and over the past two years, we've been recovering an entire skeleton that has a full skull," Wallace said.
But the big news, which hasn't been formally announced yet, was another red panda unearthing at the Gray Fossil Site.
"Our most recent discovery was, literally, two weeks ago, we found another skull," Wallace said. "It's clear that the animal was actually abundant here at our fossil site, and so now we're discovering multiple individuals."
Wallace explained that an important feature of red pandas is that their claws are much larger than one would expect for the size of the animal, a little smaller than an average raccoon.
"The claws are recurved and actually semiretractable, like a cat. They can climb down a tree head first and do it by digging in those claws. What's neat about our fossil is I can tell it also had big, recurved claws, and it may have used those to capture prey, and that's something that I still need to prove."
Wallace has plenty to work with, because, so far, researchers have only excavated about 1 percent of the fossil site.
While the small red and giant black-and-white pandas share the same face, they only really have one other characteristic in common.
"The living giant panda is a bear and the red panda is actually closer to weasels and raccoons, so they're really not related," Wallace said. "It's a misnomer. The term 'panda' literally means 'bamboo eater,' and so that's really all they share is a diet."
News of the most recent red panda fossil skull was first reported on the Cryptomundo website by Loren Coleman, director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.
Coleman visited the Gray Fossil Site about a week ago and was told of the discovery of a new red panda skull.
"They showed us different pits where they were digging for a crocodile, a rhino, tapirs and this one where they found the red panda," he said.
"I think it's groundbreaking because a lot of these animals are known from one area of the world. If all of a sudden they're found in North America, it gives cryptozoologists a lot of hope that many of these species that we project as mostly Asian actually have a connection between the continents. One thing that I think people often forget is that, in cryptozoology, while a lot of people think there may be brand-new species, cryptozoologists are realistic to know that some of these may be relic survivors."
But how exactly do we know if a 4½ million-year-old red panda was, well, red? Does Wallace and his team of paleontologists really know the color of the panda they just dug up?
"We don't know it's red. I've chosen to use the term red panda, rather than 'lesser' panda, because some people who work on red pandas get insulted if you call it a lesser panda.
"They feel that it's not like it's less important than a giant panda. They prefer to call it a red panda, so that's the only reason I use that term -- ours could have been any color."
At 37, Wallace has many years of fossil discoveries ahead.
"Yeah, I like to tell people that I'll retire long before we're finished out here. The site is so big, I figure I'll dig for the next few decades, and when I retire, they'll still be digging here.
"We have this huge list of animals that we've already found, but the list of animals that we could find is just as big, and then, there's always the surprises -- I mean, I did not expect to find a panda or a Eurasian badger here. Who knows how many other surprises we'll get out here."
Coleman agrees this can only ultimately benefit science.
"I think for science and paleontology, finding another red panda in North America makes us aware that if they've only uncovered 1 percent of the animals at the site, what are they going to find when they keep digging? It's quite exciting -- they could have a whole range of new animals there."