Typically, a red panda mother will give birth to twins, Kansas City Zoo Executive Director Randy Wisthoff said. But one of the zoo's red pandas recently had female triplets, necessitating a scramble for one extra name.

“A lot of times we have private donors that step up and get to name an animal,” Wisthoff said, adding that he can't remember when in his more than 15 years on the job that young students had the chance.

After talking with leaders in the Blue Springs School District, they devised a little competition – Pennies for Pandas.

For two weeks, students at the district's 13 elementary schools gathered pennies. Students at the top three schools then got to pick a name for baby red pandas.

On Tuesday, Wisthoff and others from the zoo visited those three schools during surprise assemblies to reveal the naming rights, much to the students' delight.

Cordill-Mason Elementary, which raised the most with $1,139.84, chose the name CoCo. James Lewis Elementary ($643.83) chose Louise, and Lucy Franklin Elementary ($459.35) chose Penny.

“We needed to get some names because the keepers were eager to start using them,” Wisthoff said. “It's fun to give the kids some ownership.”

All told, students raised $3,112.85, which will go toward the zoo's red panda care.

“They've worked with us on so many things,” Wisthoff said of the Blue Springs District. “The district really embraces the ZooED program; they're using it at every level and then some.”

Todd Nurnberg, the K-2 principal at Cordill-Mason, said the second grade teachers particularly pushed the penny fundraiser.

“We do a ZooED program for the second grade where they spend an entire year learning about zoo animals each week, then take a field trip to the zoo,” Nurnberg said.

Being in the zoo's taxing jurisdiction, that trip is no cost to the school district.

“It's a benefit of having a zoo in the community,” he said.

Wisthoff said it's not only fun to get children interested in the zoo, it's crucial to do so at that curious age, as it leads to not only some family trips to the zoo but nurtures the next generation of zoo patrons.

“That's what a good zoo is,” he said.

Wisthoff invited the students to come and visit their “adopted” animals in the coming months.

“Right now, they're waiting for winter,” he told the Cordill-Mason students. “They really like it when it's cold.”