LINCOLN — A lover's spat, perhaps.
Or maybe the bamboo leaves at the Smithsonian's National Zoo just don't taste as good as the ones they serve at the Lincoln Children's Zoo.
Whatever the reason, Rusty the red panda escaped from his enclosure Monday and remained at large for at least seven hours in the nation's capital.
Reared in Lincoln, the 1-year-old panda arrived in April at the National Zoo to help perpetuate his species. But rather make a go at domestic bliss, the critter the size of a house cat slipped out of its open-air enclosure sometime between 6 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 a.m. Monday Eastern time.
The escape triggered a “Code Green” alert and shut down the National Zoo for about an hour Monday, said Devin Murphy, a spokeswoman for the zoo.
Not that people were in danger. Although they share a name with the much larger black-and-white versions, red pandas are not bears. They weigh only 10 pounds, eat mostly vegetation and will always choose flight over fight when confronted by humans, said John Chapo, president and CEO of the Lincoln Zoo.
Rusty also was up to date on his vaccinations.
“There's absolutely no public safety concern,” Chapo said.
They are fantastic climbers, which is why they are exhibited in a fully enclosed space in Lincoln, Chapo said. They have not managed an escape in Lincoln, he added.
But he wasn't gloating. Monday morning while Rusty was still on the loose, Chapo expressed complete confidence the delinquent panda would soon be captured by his professional colleagues in Washington.
The National Zoo dispatched keepers and curators armed with binoculars to search for the panda, concentrating on trees in and around the zoo. Red pandas often browse bamboo shoots at night, preferring to curl up for a nap during the day.
At about 2:20 p.m. Eastern, they found him in a bush in a neighborhood near the zoo, Murphy said.
They loaded Rusty in a crate and took him to the zoo's vet hospital for a check-up. He appeared in good health, Murphy said.
His species needs all the breeding-age individuals it can muster. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources classifies the red panda as “vulnerable.” Deforestation and poaching represent the biggest threats to the roughly 10,000 wild red pandas remaining in China, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar.
In Washington, Rusty was paired with a female red panda named Shama. By the time he arrived a couple of months ago, red panda breeding season had wound down, so the female is not impregnated.
If and when the Nebraska red panda reproduces, he will be sent to another zoo and another female. He is not scheduled to return to Lincoln.
From now on, he'll carry a rap sheet wherever he goes.
As of Monday, National Zoo staff members were still puzzled over how Rusty pulled off his escape. Although the enclosure is open at the top, the vegetation is sufficiently trimmed back, Murphy said.
“We don't really have a theory right now,” she said.
Sounds like a case for Ace Ventura.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.