Rusty the red panda: The Edward Snowden of zoo animals?

Rusty the red panda escaped from the National Zoo, and for a few hours Monday was the second-most famous fugitive on the planet, at least to Washingtonians. Rusty-as-Snowden quickly turned into a Twitter meme. 

Abby Wood/Smithsonian National Zoo/Reuters/Handout
An endangered red panda named Rusty is seen in this undated handout photo released by the Smithsonian National Zoo on Monday. Rusty had disappeared from the Smithsonian National Zoo a few weeks after it went on display, but was recovered in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington.

First Ed Snowden, then Rusty the red panda. They were both on the lam Monday, and like everything else connected to Washington, there was a political angle.

At the National Zoo, Rusty the red panda – not to be confused with his more famous zoo-mates, the giant pandas – was last seen at 6 p.m. Sunday. By Monday morning, the zoo had put out an all-points bulletin, alerting the public and warning that if found, to exercise caution. If cornered, Rusty could bite.

At 2:24 p.m. Eastern time, the zoo tweeted out that Rusty had been captured safe and sound, put in a crate and was heading back to the zoo. Turns out he had made it all the way to 20th and Biltmore Streets NW, in the nearby neighborhood of Adams Morgan, according to The Washington Post.  

It’s not Hong Kong or Russia, but for a little red panda to escape all the zoo’s security measures, including his enclosure’s mildly electrified “hot wires,” is a pretty good trick.

Mr. Snowden, the former government contractor charged with leaking top secret national security information, is still at large, presumably somewhere in Russia, after boarding a flight Sunday from Hong Kong to Moscow. He had been booked onto a flight to Cuba on Monday, but was a no-show.

And for a few hours Monday, Snowden was the perfect foil for Rusty the red panda. In a flash, Rusty became the second most famous fugitive on the planet.

“Snowden isn’t the only one on the run,” tweeted Mary Bruce, ABC News White House producer.

“What does @RustyRedPanda know, and when did he know it?” tweeted David Clinch, executive editor at Storyful, suggesting maybe Rusty was up to no good.  

In another tweet, Mr. Clinch fueled the Rusty-as-Snowden meme: “Has anyone photo-shopped picture @RustyRedPanda into 17a on Aeroflot flight yet?” – referencing the seat that was reserved for Snowden on the Moscow-Havana flight.

Predictably, famous zoo-lover Newt Gingrich chimed in: “In response to red panda charges, I have an alibi,” the former House speaker and presidential candidate tweeted. “Callista and I were feeding our pet elephant all evening (just a joke) help find panda.”

And like all good Washington stories, Rusty made the White House’s daily briefing.

“Anything on the red panda?” a reporter asked Jay Carney in the final question of the day, sparking laughter.

Even though Rusty has been found, we will probably never know the full story – like how he got out and what route he took to get to 20th and Biltmore. And why? Why did he bolt? Rusty came to the National Zoo only in late April from a zoo in Lincoln, Neb. The zoo here plans to breed him with its female red panda, Shama, according to the Post.

Maybe it wasn’t working out between the two. Just like Snowden’s girlfriend, who got left behind when he fled to Hong Kong.

The latest tweet from the zoo, posted at 3:24 p.m., reports that Rusty is at the zoo’s vet hospital getting checked out.

As for Snowden, stay tuned. 

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