June 24, 2013

Social media leads to capture of missing U.S. panda

The male named Rusty went missing from the National Zoo on Monday, and it wasn't clear if he was taken by a human or somehow escaped on his own.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A Twitter photo and phone tip from a resident helped animal keepers track down a red panda in a Washington neighborhood Monday after it went missing from the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

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This undated handout photo provided by the National Zoo shows a red panda that went missing from its enclosure at the zoo in Washington. National Zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson says animal keepers discovered the male red panda named Rusty was missing Monday morning. Red pandas are in a separate family from giant pandas and are listed as vulnerable in the wild. (AP Photo/Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Abby Wood)

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This photo provided by Ashley Foughty shows a red panda in a Washington neighborhood, Monday, June 24, 2013. Animal keepers from the National Zoo captured the red panda, a male named Rusty, in a bush in the Adams Morgan neighborhood Monday after it went missing from its enclosure at the zoo. (AP Photo/Ashley Foughty)

The male named Rusty was captured in a tree near a home in the Adams Morgan neighborhood Monday afternoon, said National Zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson. It had traveled across the leafy Rock Creek Park, perhaps crossing a road or under a creek bridge to reach a residential area nearly ¾ of a mile from the zoo.

Senior curator Brandie Smith said animal keepers surrounded the area where he was found and called Rusty's name to calm him before capturing him in a net.

"We just had to approach him carefully," she said. "We are surprised by the distance he was able to cover."

The animal was taken to the zoo's animal hospital for a checkup and will remain there for several days.

How Rusty escaped is still a mystery, though. Zoo officials began reviewing security footage Monday morning to see if there is any evidence of how he escaped or whether he may have been taken by a human and then set loose. No security cameras are pointed directly at the red panda exhibit, though, and the zoo plans to add more cameras.

Curators have cut back several long tree limbs that may have aided the skilled climber with the escape.

"There is no obvious point that Rusty could have gotten out of the enclosure," Smith said, adding that it had held red pandas for years. "We all know that young males like to test boundaries."

Unlike giant pandas, red pandas are not members of the bear family. Red pandas are slightly bigger than a domestic cat and look similar to a raccoon. They are listed as vulnerable in the wild and native to China. Scientists believe about 10,000 of the animals remain.

Rusty arrived at the zoo in April from a zoo in Lincoln, Neb., and was in quarantine for several weeks until he went on exhibit in early June. He will turn 1 year old in July.

Red pandas are highly territorial, so zoo officials did not believe he would have traveled far. Rusty, it seems, wanted to explore his new city.

Animal keepers discovered he was missing Monday morning and started searching at 8 a.m. The zoo began sending out messages about his disappearance Monday morning on Twitter and Facebook in case someone saw him.

A spokeswoman said the zoo was "incredibly grateful" to Ashley Foughty who lives nearby, saw Rusty, tweeted a picture and called the zoo. She apparently had to leave town on a trip Monday, so zoo officials couldn't thank her in person.

Zoo Director Dennis Kelly said officials will thoroughly review the incident and said it's rare for any animal to escape.

"We will not let this happen again," he said. "Before we put Rusty back, we'll go back over this exhibit with a fine tooth comb."

Animal escapes are very rare among accredited zoos, said Steve Feldman of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. They have primary and secondary containment systems for animals. The most frequent escape is when a bird flies away.

National Zoo officials could not recall another such escape in Washington in recent decades. In 1983, a teenager was bitten by one of two viper snakes he was suspected of stealing from the zoo's reptile house. The boy carried away the snakes in a plastic garbage bag on a city bus after hiding in the zoo after it closed, officials said.

The female red panda, Shama, remained on view in the leafy exhibit Monday, despite the hoopla over her mate.

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