How Did Rusty the Red Panda Escape? Don't Ask the National Zoo

The Smithsonian has sent out a press release purporting to update the public on this week's escape of Rusty, a red panda (Ailurus fulgens), from a supposedly secure enclosure at the National Zoo. It is a masterpiece of tautology and obfuscation, designed to conceal the fact that the zookeepers have no idea how an animal with a sub-three-inch brain got away from them.

The key conclusion (emphasis in the original):

A multi-disciplinary team of Zoo experts, led by Animal Care staff, completed a thorough assessment of the Zoo’s red panda enclosure. The review included an inspection of the facility, an examination of recent photos of the enclosure with Rusty, and security footage. Based on that review Zoo staff conclude it is highly likely that Rusty left his enclosure during the night of Sunday, June 23 or early morning Monday, June 24 through the tree canopy in his exhibit.

It's "highly likely" that Rusty escaped through the tree canopy. But not certain. Possibly he picked the lock or dug a well concealed tunnel. Either way, they're pretty sure he left sometime during the night or early morning—that is, between the last time he was seen in his enclosure and the time his enclosure was found empty. That much, they know.

The report goes on to say that abundant rain in D.C. may have made the tree limbs and bamboo plants in and around the red panda exhibit sag and bend lower than usual, with the bamboo "effectively creating a bridge." And rain had promoted the growth of the vegetation in general. Smithsonian investigators: Rain makes plants grow.

But what do they know specifically about how this animal got out of his enclosure?

No red panda tracks were found outside of the red panda exhibit so the exact route of Rusty’s escape cannot be determined.

They do, however, offer this observation:

Black bamboo grown on Zoo grounds is a preferred plant species by red pandas and other animals. Animal Care staff surmise that Rusty would have been attracted to the nearby bamboo for a treat

Yes, let's focus on the urgent question of why a zoo animal might want to break out of captivity. With a clear understanding of Rusty's motives, we'll all be prepared for the next time he breaks out, however he does it.

[Photo via Getty]