The Edmond Sun

June 28, 2013

Life of luxurious freebies may not be all that great in the end

Mike Hinkle
Special to The Sun

OKLA. CITY — Sometimes there’s no accounting for the illogic of animal behavior. Like that time in 1983 when the teenage kid stole two poisonous vipers from the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. The kid was so determined to provide a good home to the serpents that he hid out on the zoo premises until after closing time. When he came out of hiding, he grabbed the snakes and stuffed them into a plastic garbage bag. On the way home, one of the ungrateful vipers actually struck the enterprising, compassionate teenager. Imagine that. Rather than rejoice at the prospect of moving to a new home where they would be more than just another exhibit, these ungrateful vipers fanged the kid. I guess there’s just no reasoning with a viper eager to push poison into any teenager that offers a helping hand.

I was thinking about the viper story this week when I read the headline about a red panda (a.k.a. lesser panda or red bearcat) escaping from the National Zoo in Washington D.C. (Hey, isn’t that the same zoo where the vipers got lifted?)

For those of you who’ve never seen a red bearcat, they look something like a cross between a red weasel and a skinny raccoon. They’re native to China and parts of India. Evidently, there are only about 10,000 of these cute little critters still living in their natural habitat.

Anyway, on Monday this week, zoo personnel discovered a 1-year-old male red panda (named Rusty) was missing from his enclosure. The zoo staff was completely befuddled. There was no apparent escape route. No open doors, no holes in the enclosure, no ropes or ladders — nothing. This led some to suspect Rusty may have had outside help. Maybe some human accomplice aided and abetted the clandestine escape.

But then, someone pointed out this was not the first time a red bearcat pulled off a baffling escape. Babu, a male red panda, executed a spectacular escape from the Birmingham Nature Center of Birmingham, England, in 2005. He went on to become a British national celebrity. So, male red pandas have been known to plot and carry out breakouts in the past.

According to Brandie Smith, Senior Zoo Curator, “We all know that young males like to test boundaries.” (Sound like any other species we know?)

It might be coincidental or it might be part of a well-devised plan, but there were no security cameras trained on the red panda enclosure when Rusty made his escape. Though the escape route is still a mystery, curators cut back several large tree limbs that might have provided a convenient highway for the break. After all, red pandas are known to be skilled climbers.

Rusty’s escape was short-lived. Once the breakout was confirmed, zoo personnel launched an intensive social media campaign alerting the populace to be on the lookout for a fugitive red bearcat. Someone used a cell phone to snap Rusty’s picture in Rock Creek Park about three quarters of a mile from the zoo.

A posse of crack red panda handlers were dispatched to the park where Rusty was surrounded and captured with a net. By Monday afternoon, he was confined to the zoo hospital for a “checkup.” This “checkup,” according to zoo officials, would take several days. In the words of zoo director Dennis Kelly, “We will not let this happen again.” Sounds pretty final, doesn’t it?

So, here’s the logical puzzle. Why would Rusty want to escape in the first place? After all, as long as he followed the rules and minded his manners, he had everything going for him. His health care was provided at taxpayer expense. His housing was free. His diet was carefully monitored and supplied without charge. He was not expected to work for his room and board. His curators are required to see to it that he is entertained as this is essential to his mental health. All Rusty had to do was behave and be satisfied with his benefits and he could live the life of Riley.

True, from here on out, his keepers will keep closer track of all these movements as additional security cameras will be installed to keep an eye on his residence. But increased governmental surveillance is a small price to pay when you consider the quantum of free benefits supplied to those fortunate enough to be locked up in their zoo.

So why would a bearcat escape from such a peachy setup? Why couldn’t he be happy in captivity? What’s so attractive about life outside the enclosure? Doesn’t make sense, does it? Or does it? I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.

MIKE HINKLE is a retired attorney and Edmond resident.