Rusty the red panda likely used tree and bamboo bridge to escape zoo

June 28, 2013

He left no note, no tracks and no clues. But Smithsonian National Zoo officials believe Rusty the red panda, who decided Monday was a good day to get out and take in the sights, may have used overlapping, rain-heavy tree limbs and tall bamboo as a bridge to the outside world.

In a news release issued Friday, zoo officials said they have reviewed visitor photos and security footage of the red pandas’ enclosure and concluded that it was “highly likely” that Rusty had left during the night of Sunday, June 23, or early Monday, June 24, through the tree canopy. They said the rain had lowered trees limbs enough so that he could reach the edge of the enclosure.

And since red pandas have climbing agility and ability, freedom — and a tasty bamboo snack — was just a hop, skip and a jump away.

There is no video of Rusty’s escape, according to zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson, and zoo officials didn’t see any overlapping branches in the exhibit Monday. A visitor provided photos Tuesday.

Zookeepers discovered Rusty missing at 7:30 a.m. Monday and sent Washington into a panda panic. A lunchtime sighting in Adams Morgan led to his capture shortly after 2 p.m. and a visit to the animal hospital, where he’s doing well. Officials hope to return him to the exhibit by July 4.

Rusty is one of the zoo’s two red pandas. A new addition to the zoo from Lincoln, Neb., in late April, he is less than a year old and is about the size of a raccoon. He has been on exhibit about three weeks.

The zoo has started trimming the bamboo, trees and other plantings near the exhibit to prevent future escapes, and will construct an additional visitor barrier.

Don Moore, the zoo’s associate director for animal care services, said medium-size carnivores generally stick close to home, but Rusty was found about a mile away from the zoo — which Moore said is “particularly far if you’re a panda who eats bamboo.”

Moore had expected to find Rusty lying in vegetation near the exhibit, and was “certainly not expecting to see a picture on Twitter of him walking down the street in Adams Morgan.”

This article has been updated.

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