How could Rusty know? He was new to town, just in from a children’s zoo in Nebraska, and had been on exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo only a few weeks.
But when you’re a panda in Washington, even a small red panda, and you take a powder on a steamy Monday, you’re going to get some buzz.
When the youthful Rusty was discovered to be missing at 7:30 a.m. Monday, the zoo went to Code Green, the alert for an escaped animal.
Panda-crazy Washington went to Code Red, from the Twitteropolis to the streets of Adams Morgan, where Rusty was nabbed.
Media swarmed. The police got involved. Former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, a noted zoo lover, jested on Twitter that he was not involved and had an alibi.
Someone yelled a question about red pandas at the White House news briefing.
Then Ashley Foughty, 29, and her family, who were walking from lunch, spotted Rusty on the run at 21st and Biltmore streets. Foughty snapped some pictures and tweeted them.
They didn’t know Rusty was missing, but, figuring this was no raccoon, they called the zoo.
By the time the pinch was made, after a search across streets and rooftops by animal curators with nets and handheld radios, Rusty was a sensation on social and non-social media.
“Crated and captured!” a zoo spokeswoman announced a little after 2 p.m.
The zoo tweeted a picture of a thirsty-looking Rusty safely back behind mesh, taking a drink from a water bottle. He was reported to be in good health in the zoo’s animal hospital Monday evening.
The day’s events began at 7:30 a.m. when the keepers discovered that Rusty had disappeared, apparently overnight. He had last been seen at 6 p.m. Sunday. The Code Green was sounded over the keepers’ radios at 8 a.m.
Rusty is less than a year old and is about the size of a raccoon.
An intense, but futile, search of the zoo ensued. The zoo gates were closed temporarily but were reopened at 9:45 a.m. after he did not turn up, spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said.
“We have been searching all morning,” she said. “It is most likely that he has not really left the vicinity. He would have to have some very strong motivation to leave the area.”
Rusty is relatively new to the zoo. He arrived from Lincoln, Neb., in late April and has been on exhibit about three weeks. The National Zoo also has a female red panda, Shama, and plans to breed the two.
“This animal is not dangerous to any human,” Baker-Masson said. “He is vaccinated.”
Foughty, a singer and actress from Columbus, Ohio, said she, her husband, her mother and mother-in-law, were walking on 20th Street from Mama Ayesha’s restaurant on Calvert street NW.
“My husband actually spotted a striped tail and was like ‘Maybe that’s a raccoon,’ ” she said. “Then, the whole animal came out, and we were like ‘That’s definitely not a raccoon.’ ”
A regular zoo-goer, she said she remarked: “I think that’s a red panda.”
“We took a couple pictures,” which she tweeted about 1:15 p.m., she said. “And my mother-in-law called the zoo.”
She said that when she tweeted Rusty’s picture, she did not know he was missing. A friend commented on Facebook moments later that the zoo was looking for him. “I’m so glad that they were able to find him,” she said.
Experts from the zoo and the Washington Humane Society soon located Rusty in a tree.
Scott Giacoppo, vice president of external affairs for the Humane Society, said Rusty was nudged from his perch with a long pole and tumbled into a safety net.
“Red pandas are typically not aggressive,” said zoo curator Brandie Smith, who was part of the team sent to get Rusty. “He was probably more frightened than we were.”
The zoo said it does not know how Rusty, who is said to be friendly and mild-mannered, managed to get out of his enclosure. “He’s a young . . .male, and we all know how young males like to test their boundaries,” Smith said.
Baker-Masson said the outdoor part of the enclosure’s “hot wires,” which deliver a small shock to prevent escapes, were activated.
In making his escape to Adams Morgan, south of the zoo, Rusty probably crossed Rock Creek and Rock Creek Parkway, she said. She said Rusty was fitted with a microchip that listed his identity but could not be used to track him.
She said the possibility remains that someone took him out of the enclosure and out of the zoo, then let him go after having second thoughts.
“We don’t know,” she said. “And we will look into it.”