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Virginia Zoo keeps searching for long-vanished red panda
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Virginia Zoo keeps searching for long-vanished red panda

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Red pandas

Generally referred to as the “lesser panda” in deference to the giant pandas we all know and love, red pandas were discovered by scientists first. These elusive creatures live in the Himalayas of Nepal, China, India, Bhutan, and Myanmar (formerly Burma). Normally solitary creatures, adult red pandas form temporary pairs only during their mating or breeding seasons.

NORFOLK—The theft of a lemur from the San Francisco Zoo in October stirred memories of Sunny, the red panda who vanished nearly four years ago from the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk.

The tips line rarely rings these days, but Sunny’s disappearance remains the “greatest mystery” of zoo director Greg Bockheim’s career.

Without a trace. After 35 years in his field, he still can’t get over that.

Bockheim can find himself lying awake at night still wondering “where she could have gone, what could have happened to her. I just hope she’s out there somehow and doing well.”

While the lemur theft was quickly solved with an arrest and the recovery of the ring-tailed victim, the Norfolk case has long gone cold.

Staff discovered Sunny, a 19-month-old female, missing from the zoo’s red panda exhibit on the morning of Jan. 24, 2017.

Red pandas, an endangered species, are about the size and shape of raccoons. Cute and cuddly looking with a fluffy, long tail, they’re coveted in the black-market exotic pet trade, according the Red Panda Network, a conservation group. Natives of the mountains of South Asia, fewer than 10,000 remain in the wild.

But there’s no indication Sunny was abducted on that stormy night — no signs of forced entry or anything suspicious. Prevailing theory is that Sunny got out by accident.

The most-likely scenario, Bockheim believes, is that Sunny — shying away from the lustful advances of her male exhibit mate — slipped off a wet tree branch extending over the fence line.

An extensive hunt in and around the Granby Street zoo, aided by tracking dogs, thermal cameras, drones, baited traps and scores of volunteers, came up empty handed. Sunny had been outfitted with a standard zoo microchip — useful for ID purposes but with no GPS function.

Zoo escapes, intentional or otherwise, are rare — only about half a dozen per year, according to Rob Vernon, spokesman for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which represents 230 facilities, including all major metropolitan zoos in the United States.

Sunny is an outlier even then.

“I can tell you, in most cases, the animals who do leave their habitat never leave zoo grounds,” Vernon wrote in an email to the newspaper. “In fact, most ‘escapes’ involve animals accessing keeper service areas rather than animals completely outside of their habitat and at risk of coming into contact with the public, though it does occasionally happen.”

It usually involves birds that skedaddle during free-flight shows and are frequently recaptured, Vernon said.

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When zoo animals roam, at least a carcass is normally found. Or what’s left of one.

Could Sunny have wandered into another enclosure and the jaws of one of the zoo’s other residents? Staff examined the droppings of its tigers and the like, searching for telltale traces that someone had eaten the evidence. The carnivores were ruled out as suspects.

“So, I guess,” Vernon said, “that would make Sunny a bit of a legend.”

Her vanishing act drew national and international publicity, though she was not the first red panda to go on the lam. Rusty, who slipped away from the National Zoo in Washington in 2013, was recovered less than a day later in the nearby Adams Morgan neighborhood. A red panda from a Chinese zoo lasted eight months on the outside before being nabbed in 2016.

But this long after Sunny’s vanishing act, Bockheim doesn’t believe she’s making her way in the wilds of Hampton Roads.

“She would have been seen by now,” he said. “She was not afraid of people. She was friendly.”

And if someone crossed paths with Sunny and decided to make her a pet, “I don’t see how you could keep that quiet,” Bockheim said. “Friends. Neighbors. Someone would notice a red panda in a cage in your house. They’d report it.”

Red pandas are illegal to possess. On top of that, they’re not easy keepers, at least not without an endless supply of bamboo — their main diet.

The zoo still maintains its hotline for Sunny sightings. In the early days, calls poured in — as many as 300 coming from Williamsburg to North Carolina.

“We knew she’s never be able to travel that far across roads and things like that,” Bockheim said. “But if someone picked her up and then let her go somewhere else, you never know.”

Tips that could be chased down turned out to be foxes or racoons. Only two reports have come in the last eight months. Dead ends, like all the rest.

Zoo visitors still ask about Sunny. Two male red pandas currently occupy the exhibit, which has been made more secure.

Sunny’s Twitter feed has slowed but remains active, although Bockheim says it’s not connected with the zoo and is being run by an anonymous, “random” person.

“Does as anyone still think about me?” reads one of the latest tweets. “It’s very lonely out on the streets all by myself. #FindSunny.”

If only we could.

“The good, the bad, the ugly — things happen when you’re dealing with live collections,” Bockheim said. “But this? I just don’t know how to explain it.”

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