The Great Red Panda Escape

A Smithsonian National Zoo red panda escaped from his pen on June 24, 2013. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian.

On Sunday, June 24, 2013, a curious one-year old red panda, named Rusty, darted in the middle of the night from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Woodley Park, DC.

The animal was discovered missing the next day. According to a Smithsonian representative, a zookeeper had put out breakfast early Monday morning and only one hungry red panda, Shama, a five-year old female, came running. After an initial search around the animal’s pen and surrounding area proved unsuccessful, the zoo went public with its’ escaped animal emergency. The greater Washington D.C. metropolitan area was put on high alert.

Thunderstorms had plagued the area in previous days, making a mess of the leafy, wide-branched trees in Rusty’s enclosure. Likely taking advantage of some broken brush, the over three-foot-long mammal, which more resembles a raccoon than a panda, scampered out of his pen, leaving his female roomie behind.

Animation courtesy of Sarah Yu.

Zoo officials initially considered the possibility that someone had stolen the panda or helped enabled its’ escape, but that hypothesis was later ruled out.

The exact timing of the zoo-break is unknown, but it must have occurred after the staff had gone home for the night. While numerous cameras are arranged around the general panda exhibit area, none are directed at the red panda pen, a National Zoo representative told The Raptor Lab. Rusty managed to break out of his cage entirely unseen.

By 1:30 PM Monday afternoon, the panda was spotted in Adam’s Morgan, a neighborhood close to the zoo. The panda observer said she did not know about the zoo escape ahead of time. She called the Zoo about the sighting and posted some pics on web, which were widely circulated on Twitter.

One photo of the escape red panda that circulated Twitter on June 25, 2013.

One photo of the escape red panda that circulated Twitter on June 25, 2013.

Rusty was recaptured by 2:30 PM. He spent a few days at a hospital getting checked for illnesses. Then he was moved to a behind-the-scenes holding area. Finally, he returned to public display on July 9, 2013.

Rusty, captured, awaits to be re-released in his pen at the Smithsonian's National Zoo. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Rusty, captured, awaits to be re-released in his pen at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Rusty is a newcomer to the Smithsonian’ National Zoo. He had just arrived from Lincoln’s Children’s Zoo in Nebraska in early June. Around three-feet in length, Rusty is a handsome fellow with perky white triangle ears, a red tear-drop pattern shaped like a burglar mask around his eyes, a thick coat of red-orange fur, and a long striped tail. His diet consists of fruit and bamboo—and Smithsonian personnel think he was tempted out of his cage in pursuit of a midnight snack. (To find out more about red pandas, go here.)


On a recent weekend trip to DC, I visited Rusty. Apathetic to the large crowds swarming his pen, the youngster sprawled sleepily across a low-hanging branch. A Smithsonian volunteer dutifully stationed outside his pen, however, welcomed the attention and kindly answered questions from the crowd.

And boy did people have questions! Is that the panda that escaped? How did he get out? Has he tried getting out again? What do red pandas eat? Where are they from? And the list goes on.

On the way out of the exhibit, which is in the same area as the regular big black and white pandas, I noticed an impressive wall of monitoring camera screens. Given this high level security, Rusty’s recent successful, albeit temporary, escape made me wonder how often animals successfully break out of American zoos.

Every time it happens, it makes headlines—so you know it is pretty rare. But have escape rates dropped in recent years due to beefed up security? Is there any specific animal famous in the zoo community, either locally in DC or across the country, for frequently attempting magician-like now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t getaways?

Turns out, escaped animals come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. There was the flighty Macaw named Chuva, who despite clipped wings exited the Vancouver Zoo in 2009. In Australia, a middle-aged white rhino, called Satara, charged out of his enclosure at the Monarto Zoo in 2008. An unhappy hippo, Nikica, swam out of the Montenegro zoo during a flood in 2010.

In 2007, Tatiana, a disgruntled tiger, escaped her pen and attacked three visitors, one of them fatally. Tatiana was sentenced to death upon her recapture.

And these are just a few of the many, many stories out there. It seems each zoo has its own story, or two, or more.

As for statistics? Admittedly, I am still on the hunt.

According to the National Zoo, there have been no other escapes there this year. They did not have annual escape statistics on hand, but promised to look into it and get back to me.

Whether or not animal-monitoring technology has improved in recent years is also unclear. But thanks to social media, getting the word out about an escaped animal and tracking its whereabouts is definitely easier. The recent DC incident is evidence of that.  (To read some of the tweets about the #FindRusty #Rusty #redpanda incident, go here).

As the DC representative told The Raptor Lab, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo was ready to respond to the incident and did so quickly. It also helped that the animal escaped on a workday.

Stay tuned for updates! Hopefully, I can track down some hard-and-fast escaped statistics in the coming days.

Also, a special thanks to Sarah Yu for her delightful animation of Rusty’s escape.


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