National Zoo Recovers Missing Red Panda

A Tweet helped the National Zoo recover a missing red panda before 2:30 p.m. Monday, according to zoo officials.

Animal keepers fed Rusty about 6 p.m. Sunday in his exhibit on the Asian Trail but discovered him missing Monday morning and began combing trees at 8 a.m.

Ashley Foughty spotted Rusty near 20th and Biltmore streets and the Airy View condos in the Adams Morgan neighborhood and Tweeted pictures about 12:30 p.m. that helped the zoo locate the red panda in a tree.

"We are very grateful to her," zoo spokesperson Pamela Baker-Masson said.

A team of animal care personnel with capture equipment and veterinarians, with assistance from the Washington Humane Society, surrounded Rusty, National Zoo Senior Curator Dr. Brandie Smith said. The keepers most familiar to Rusty approached him first.

“So the keepers called his name,” Smith said. “He was familiar to them. They calmed him down. We were able to approach him with a net, capture him with a net, transfer him to a crate and then we just took him to our veterinary hospital to make sure that he was OK.”

He will be kept there several days for observation, though he suffered no obvious injuries.

“I think the biggest danger is if he ate any inappropriate food,” Smith said.

Rusty is a recent addition to the zoo, joining female red panda Shama in their exhibit two weeks ago from the Lincoln Children's Museum in Nebraska. He was brought to the National Zoo to breed with Shama and turns 1 next month.

Over the last few days, Rusty hasn't been as interested in food, which zoo officials attribute to the heat.

The zoo says red pandas are territorial animals, so it would be unusual for Rusty to leave his new habitat. He is the first animal to go missing from the zoo in recent memory.

The distance Rusty covered surprised zoo officials, and they haven't found an obvious point of escape, so they have not ruled out foul play and they are reviewing surveillance video.

“So the two theories we’re working on: One is that he got out of the exhibit and managed to travel a great distance over the course of the night, or the other is that someone actually did take him from the exhibit and then this afternoon thought a little bit better of having a red panda as a pet and decided to release him back to the wild,” Smith said.

Potentially Rusty could have leapt from one of the longer branches in the enclosure, but zoo officials don't think he could make that jump.

“But he is a young male, he is a 1-year-old male, and we all know that young males like to test boundaries,” Smith said.

The zoo trimmed back long branches in the enclosure as a precaution Monday.

“Usually animals leave a trail when they exit, and we’re having trouble finding it,” zoo Director Dennis Kelly said.

Before returning Rusty to the exhibit, the zoo will check it thoroughly to make sure it is secure.

“It’s important that the animals have access at night, because these are animals that enjoy being outside, and our exhibit is designed for that,” Kelly said. “I would hate to have to lock in animals.”

Shama remained on display in the exhibit Monday.

Red pandas resemble raccoons and have bold red coats. An endangered species, they are called pandas because they come from the same habitat as giant pandas and eat bamboo like giant pandas and are red and black instead of white and black. But unlike giant pandas, red pandas are not members of the bear family.

The zoo warned Rusty could bite if cornered or scared and advised not to try to approach him, though red pandas are not aggressive animals.

The zoo provided updates on its Twitter and Facebook pages, and several Rusty Twitter handles popped up, adding levity to the search, including @RustyThePandaDC, which Tweeted some shout outs to News4:

And a retweet of Storm Team 4 Chief Meteorologist Doug Kammerer:


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