Virginia Zoo asks public to join search for missing red panda

Sunny the red panda / Virginia Zoo
Sunny the red panda at the Virginia Zoo / Virginia Zoo

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The staff of the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk are still searching for their missing red panda, Sunny — and they’re inviting members of the public to join in on the search.

In a tweet Thursday morning, zoo officials asked members of the public to meet at the elephant statue at the zoo entrance at 1 p.m. to search neighborhoods.

The zoo said two bloodhounds are also on their way to aid in the search.

Zoo officials said Sunny was last seen at 5 p.m. Monday. When zoo staff checked the Red Panda habitat Tuesday morning, Sunny was not in her enclosure. Only her mate Thomas was around. The exhibit is located in the zoo’s Asia – Trail of the Tiger section.

Staff are actively searching zoo grounds and a mile radius around it. Norfolk police provided a geothermal camera to zoo staff to help locate Sunny. Residents are also aiding in the search.

Thursday, the zoo announced it was cancelling its scheduled Australia Day event so staff could focus on the search.

“The main thing I’m looking for is movement,” said Connor Fad.

Fad is a student at Old Dominion University. He spent his Wednesday looking up at trees in the area around the Virginia Zoo.

“I know I look a little bit crazy, but I’m out here for a purpose,” Fad said. “If you are the red panda, where would you want to be?”

If you see Sunny out in the community, do not touch her. Instead, if possible, try to take a photo of Sunny and text it to the Virginia Zoo hotline at 757-777-7899, then call with more details. The zoo said if you’re looking for her, scan the tree canopy from a distance rather than searching individual trees.

Zoo officials said they have been receiving calls about Sunny sightings, and are following up on the tips, but most have been raccoons.

Virginia Zoo Executive Director Greg Bockheim said it’s mating season for the red pandas and maybe Thomas got a bit frisky.

“In this case he may have been after her for a long time and it was rainy the night of Monday; we think she had gotten out and she could have slipped and he could have pushed her off a branch,” said Bockheim.

Bockheim believe she’s not too far from home and is most likely hiding in a tree.

“They want to stay close to things where they will feel safe,” Bockheim said.

Sunny came to the Virginia Zoo in May 2016 from Front Royal. Here’s a video of her posted by The Virginia Zoo:

This is not the first time a red panda has escaped its enclosure at The Virginia Zoo. In 2007, a Red Panda named Yin escaped her enclosure twice in two months, even after zookeepers made modifications to the fencing.

Several years later, the zoo moved the original panda exhibit from the front of the park to the new Asia area.

The Virginia Zoo said the red panda habitat’s trees, barriers and other components are in accordance with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) regulations.

Red panda Thomas remains in the exhibit he shares with Sunny in Asia – Trail of the Tiger.

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