WASHINGTON – Rusty the red panda was on the lam.
Weeks before his first birthday, the critter with a face destined for stardom escaped from his enclosure at the National Zoo. Within hours, he became an Internet sensation, garnering live-blogs, hashtags and satirical Twitter accounts based on another high-profile missing individual: NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
Officials said they didn't know how Rusty wriggled out of his living quarters, which are topped by an electrified fence. He was last seen about 6 p.m. Sunday. When he didn’t show up for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. Monday, the zoo called for help.
Some zoo visitors wanted to get in on the search action.“Let’s be honest, everyone here wants to be that person to find Rusty,” said Kyle Fernandez, 18, as his friend, Chloe Meister, 17, looked up red panda mating calls on her smartphone.
But they were at the zoo -- and Rusty was not.
Shortly after lunchtime, several D.C. residents spotted him sauntering down the sidewalk less than a mile away, in the Adams-Morgan district.
Ashley Foughty and her husband, Patrick, were walking back from lunch about 1:30 p.m. when she spotted what looked like a red, bushy-tailed raccoon or cat.
She followed the animal and snapped photos with her smartphone as he scampered into a backyard for a bite of his favorite food: bamboo.
Then she called the National Zoo, which sent keepers to fetch him, Foughty said.
Zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said Rusty was dehydrated and a bit shaky after his adventure. He was being monitored overnight at the zoo’s veterinary hospital.
Baker-Masson said zoo horticulturists had examined Rusty’s enclosure and found no “obvious route out.”
Fewer than 10,000 red pandas remain in the wild. Many are illegally hunted for their furry red tail, considered a good-luck charm in their native southwest China. They are listed as “vulnerable” under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Baker-Masson said the 2004 film “Kung Fu Panda” has prompted children to think about the red panda and conservation.
“We love that kind of stuff,” she said. “One day, it’s in a movie; here, it’s a real red panda, and then they can make that connection.”