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Only 10,000 red pandas remain in the wild. (Abby Wood / Smithsonian National Zoo / AP Images)

Caught Red-Panda’d

A red panda’s brief escape from the National Zoo makes headlines

By Sean Price | July 3 , 2013

Not all pandas look alike. Red pandas actually look somewhat like a cross between a fox and bushy house cat. That makes sense, since Rusty the red panda certainly showed fox-like smarts and cat-like quickness in his escape last week from the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Rusty’s journey across the nation’s capital lasted only a few hours. He was noticed missing at about 8 a.m. Zoo officials immediately sent out Twitter and Facebook messages to alert people nearby. Local news programs also reported his escape.

A woman in a nearby neighborhood finally spotted Rusty hiding in some bushes. She tweeted a photo of the animal, which brought zoo officials running. He was soon brought back to the zoo safe and sound.

ESCAPING THE EXHIBIT

Rusty’s getaway was so clever that zoo officials still wonder whether a human helped him. “There is no obvious point that Rusty could have gotten out of the enclosure,” says Brandie Smith, a zoo official responsible for taking care of Rusty. She adds that the place he escaped from had held red pandas for years with no problems.

Outside Rusty’s exhibit was a stand of bamboo, which red pandas love to eat. So Rusty may have just been following his stomach.

But zoo officials are still trying to figure out how the red panda did it. Their best guess so far is that Rusty was able to take advantage of unusual circumstances. Rain the day before might have lowered the limbs of trees in the exhibit. That may have shortened the distance between the trees and the edge of the enclosure.

It’s very rare for an animal to escape from any zoo. In fact, the last time it happened at the National Zoo was in 1983. In that instance, a boy apparently took two snakes. Like Rusty, the reptiles were returned.

Whatever happened this time, zoo officials plan to make Rusty’s enclosure escape-proof. “We will not let this happen again,” says zoo director Dennis Kelly. “Before we put Rusty back, we’ll go back over this exhibit with a fine-tooth comb.”

A SPECIES AT RISK

Rusty’s disappearing act is especially embarrassing for the zoo because red pandas are an endangered species. Only about 10,000 remain in the wild. They are distantly related to giant pandas and make their homes in rainy forests in the Asian countries of Nepal, Myanmar, and China. Red pandas are endangered mainly because forests in those nations are being cut down for logging and farms.

The National Zoo was delighted to be able to report that Rusty was safe and well after his adventure. He will soon be returned to the enclosure he shares with Shama, a female red panda. Zoo officials hope that the pair will have a baby and help increase the world’s number of red pandas.

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