City Desk

The National Zoo Is Missing a Red Panda

National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden isn't the only creature the federal government is searching for today. The National Zoo tweeted moments ago that it is looking for Rusty, a male red panda who was last seen last night around 6 p.m. The zoo tweeted that its staff has been looking for Rusty since 8 a.m., and that "he could be sick & hiding, or someone could have taken him."

Rusty debuted at the National Zoo earlier this year, joining one other, Shama, in the park's Asia Trail exhibit. According to the Huffington Post, Rusty turns 1 next month. Early on, Rusty seemed to be getting along with his exhibitmate, with whom zoo officials hoped he would mate. The National Zoo wrote earlier this month:

After a 30-day quarantine period, keepers released him into the red panda exhibit on Asia Trail on early last week. The introduction between Rusty and Shama went smoothly, just as keepers expected. Rusty approached Shama curiously and Shama postured so Rusty would know she was in charge. Other than short interactions the pair remained separate for most of that first day.

On the second day keepers saw the pair sharing space and even spied Shama grooming Rusty—a sign that this duo is doing well already.

Rusty's bliss, apparently, did not last: A zoo spokesperson tells the Washington Post that Rusty "has not seemed interested in food the last few days."

The National Zoo did not immediately return a request for comment.

For red pandas, today's news represents a rare moment in a spotlight that seems to mostly have eyes for larger, slower, black-and-white bears. As red panda expert Angela Glatston of the Rotterdam Zoo told National Geographic in a 2012 interview, the red panda has a bit of a PR problem. "The name doesn't help as people continue expecting to see a small version of the giant panda," Glatston said. (The red panda has only a distant connection to the giant panda.) She said once people actually see the red panda—a handsome, copper-colored raccoonish creature with a baby face and legs that look like inky stockings—"they are hooked."

"A few cute pictures and videos can win a lot of hearts," Glatston said. "However, many PR departments may need to be convinced of this."

Even the red panda's most significant pop-cultural moment—an appearance in the 2008 film Kung Fu Panda—was marred by misunderstanding and misinformation on the part of movie critics. Various reviewers referred to the red panda's character, Master Shifu, as a "tiny wolf," "a rodent," and "a lemur."

The red panda is known to be solitary and mostly sedentary during the day. Other notable notables: The red panda is an excellent climber, eats bamboo, and communicates through tweets and whistles. (Not that kind of tweets.) Its red fur is prized in Southwest China.

Update, 1:15 p.m. As of a few moments ago, Rusty had still not been found. Zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson says that the zoo has been searching for Rusty in brush and trees around the National Zoo, beginning in the red panda habitat and then circling outward. Baker-Masson said the zoo is "looking at one of three scenarios":

1) Rusty is "well, healthy, but he’s out and he’s probably high up in a tree because it’s hot now."

2) "He’s not well, he may be sick and he’s out—he’s probably hiding in a tree, again."

3)  "The slight possibility that someone has taken him."

Baker-Masson says keepers have not searched beyond the National Zoo's boundaries because of red pandas' territorial nature, but will if they get a tip suggesting Rusty has left the grounds. She reiterated that anyone who spots Rusty should not engage him but call in the sighting. If you approach Rusty, she says, “you will likely get bitten.”

Image via National Zoo

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