Missing red panda returned safely to National Zoo

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A red panda who escaped from the National Zoo wandered a mile through Northwest D.C. before he was found safe and sound Monday after a daylong disappearance that sparked a social media frenzy when zoo officials announced the search on Twitter and Facebook.

How he escaped — or who helped him do it — are questions officials have yet to answer, but they’ve launched a top-to-bottom investigation to find out so it doesn’t happen again.

Speaking before a crowd of reporters and curious zoo visitors hours after Rusty’s capture, National Zoo Director Dennis Kelly said officials were “going to look at every aspect because we don’t know how the animal got out.”

“Usually animals leave a trail, but we’re having trouble finding that,” he said. “We will not let this happen again.”

Brandie Smith, senior curator at the zoo, said crews had already trimmed back some low-hanging branches and vines, which could have provided a way for the young and energetic panda to escape from his open-air home.

Rusty’s return capped a day of sensational news coverage featuring worldwide headlines on the search for the missing red panda, who is about the size of a raccoon.

Zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said the decision to take the search to Twitter shortly before noon was done because “it was a very quick way to assemble eyes and ears” outside the exhibits.

“There was a chance he was not on the property and somebody out there could help us,” she said.

The social media site exploded with comments and observations about the on-the-lam panda and a flurry of phony Twitter accounts in the missing panda’s name.

Ms. Smith said Rusty was found at about 2:20 p.m. up a tree next to a home in Adams Morgan, thanks to a passer-by who tweeted a photograph of the ruddy-colored panda scampering through some grass.

Several zoo officials traveled to the area to confirm the sighting, and more animal specialists were called once they realized it really was Rusty sitting in the tree.

“We had people on the roof, people in the basement with nets that looked like giant butterfly nets,” Ms. Smith said. “We had some helpers who he was more familiar with call his name,” she said. The workers coaxed him close enough to capture him with the nets.

The furry fugitive was taken to an animal hospital, where he was checked for injuries and given water. Ms. Smith said Rusty seemed a bit nervous and scared when animal keepers first found him in the tree, but he was unharmed and relaxing under observation.

Zoo spokeswoman Jen Zoon said Rusty had last been seen at about 6 p.m. Sunday by one of the zoo’s late afternoon keepers and that officials called a Code Green — an alert for a missing animal — when they could not find the animal at 6:30 a.m.

The exhibit, which is located along the zoo’s Asia Trail, is surrounded by a fence charged with enough current to discourage animals from escaping, Ms. Zoon said, adding that the hot wire around the red panda exhibit was turned on.

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