There and Back Again: A Red Panda’s Tale
After hours of searching, running, sweating, and—finally—netting, the staff of the National Zoo apprehended Rusty the red panda, who was found missing early this morning. Less than four hours after the zoo announced that Rusty was missing, he was captured by a team consisting of National Zoo staff, D.C. police, and the Washington Humane Society in a tree in the backyard of an Adams Morgan home.
It is not clear how Rusty escaped the red panda enclosures, National Zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said at a press conference this afternoon, or if he was stolen.
“We’re going to take an in-depth look at the exhibit,” National Zoo Director Dennis Kelly said. “We will not let this happen again.” Luckily, veterinarians at the zoo’s hospital deemed Rusty to be in good condition. “He’s doing fine,” Baker-Masson said.
From start to finish, Twitter played a major role in coverage of the search as it progressed throughout the day. The National Zoo tweeted about Rusty’s disappearance at 10:51 a.m., saying he was last seen at 6 p.m. last night. Although the National Zoo has another red panda, Shama, their exhibit appeared empty in the early afternoon, though a horde of sweaty journalists, cameramen, and zoogoers crowded the viewing area on the trail to get a closer look. At the time, Baker-Masson didn’t expect Rusty to have left the zoo, saying that the red panda, a small, raccoonlike animal, is an arboreal and territorial animal that would most likely be hiding in nearby trees or brush. Laura Luckwaldt, 11, visiting from Woodville, Wis., said she thought Rusty would’ve simply been hungry by that point, saying he’s “got to be by the bamboo.”
Around 1:30 p.m., the search team got the response it was looking for from Twitter user Ashley Foughty, who tweeted a picture of the panda near the Airy View condos at the intersection of 20th and Biltmore. At this point, I power-walked from the zoo to the intersection, where I saw the Washington Humane Society's Ted Deppner running down the street with a net. I followed him down the block until we reached the house where Rusty was supposedly hiding out. We searched the front yard to no avail, and as more officials and cops showed up, Erik Alda, a resident of the home, told me I couldn’t go inside with the search team. I waited for a few seconds on the sidewalk before hearing someone yell that Rusty was behind the house.
A parking area for condo residents that was elevated above the sidewalk offered a decent view of the roof. A group was standing on the roof with nets, in case Rusty left the tree, and was soon joined by others carrying a crate. Suddenly there was movement on the roof, and an initial yell that Rusty was still loose, but then, from below, I heard confirmation on a walkie talkie: They got him.
“You don’t get to see this often in your neighborhood,” said Tony Bauer, who lives around the corner. Alda said he didn't mind the brief spectacle. “These are my five minutes of fame so I’m very happy.” While the search team walked the crate down the street and the cameramen folded up their tripods, the block became quiet once again. Rusty the red panda was on his way back to the zoo, and D.C.—never a city to under-react to a panda controversy—could breathe a sigh of relief.
Top photo courtesy Ashley Foughty. Bottom photo by Dan Singer.