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A little panda's big adventure tugs a community's heartstrings

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About the time Loretta Hancock was heading out to grab something to eat on Nov. 21, a feeling of deep dread was settling firmly into the pit of Sequoia Park Zoo Manager Gretchen Ziegler's stomach. It was about 9:30 p.m., roughly 70 hours since Masala — the zoo's 16-month-old red panda — escaped her enclosure and disappeared, setting off a panda hunt that made international news. It had been nearly 48 hours since her last reported sighting, and the hope of getting her safely back into the confines of the zoo appeared all but lost.

"I just wasn't getting any calls," Ziegler said. "It was a series of sleepless nights and just kind of like a nightmare. It was probably the most stressful thing I've ever been through."

While losing any animal would be crushing to zoo staff and the community, this was worse. Masala and her twin sister Cini were born at the zoo in July of last year to parents Stella Luna and Sumo. The pups became the zoo's stars, its poster children, in part due to a community-wide vote to pick their names while they were still fuzzy, wee little things. Little red panda faces adorn zoo posters and banners, and the small, fluffy raccoon-like creatures have become one of the zoo's prime attractions. "Every animal in the zoo is deeply loved and cherished by the staff who take care of them every day," Ziegler said. "They're not pets, but the relationship they establish with staff is akin to that. We may not cuddle with them and things like that, but they become family members."

Within hours of Masala's escape — which was first reported at about 11:45 a.m. on Nov. 19 when two walkers spotted her at Fern and Vista streets and called the zoo — word of the wayward panda's walkabout spread like wildfire through town. By that night, national news outlets were reporting on Masala's daring escape and unknown whereabouts.

Ziegler and zoo staff worked through the night and the next day "bushwhacking the gullies" of Sequoia Park and searching the neighborhoods surrounding the zoo. But Masala, a reclusive little climber measuring about 20 inches long and weighing just a few pounds, wasn't turning up. "When they decide to hide, you're just not going to find them," Ziegler said.

Reinforcements were needed, so on the night of Nov. 20, zoo staff put out a call for volunteers. The following morning, more than 70 community members of all stripes showed up at the zoo, where they were split into pairs and given maps of the sector they were to scour, complete with markings to show which houses were growing bamboo patches that might draw the little panda in for a snack. Some volunteers brought their kids. Another brought a search dog. One couple made the search their first date.

In droves, they set out from the zoo and methodically made their way through neighborhoods and green belts, combing through bamboo and handing out missing posters with the zoo's "find Masala hotline" number on them. But as the sun began to set that night, the search party had turned up no signs of Masala.

Zoo staff decided against asking volunteers to show up again the following day, asking folks instead just to keep their eyes open, their cell phones ready and the hotline number close. "It became pretty obvious that [the search] was not going to be what was going to work because the area was just so big," Ziegler said. Instead, Ziegler said, staff kept looking on their own and simply prayed that someone would spot Masala out and about, crossing a road or in a yard somewhere.

As a 30-year-old single mother of two with two jobs, Hancock said she was largely oblivious to all the fuss over the missing Masala. In fact, she said it had only really come onto her radar on Nov. 21, when an electric sign showed up on Campton Road near her house, urging drivers to slow down due to a "panda in the area." When Hancock again passed the sign that night while heading out to grab some dinner at Fresh Freeze, Hancock slowed down. When she approached the intersection of Hodgson and Q streets, she noticed "a little critter" on the side of the road and thought that it looked like a raccoon. "When I got a bit closer it looked at me and I thought, 'Oh wait. Oh my gosh. I've got to call someone,'" she recalled, adding that she pulled over and got out of the car. Then, she and Masala stood staring at each other as Hancock dialed 911. "They answered and said, '911. What's your emergency?' I said, 'I don't think it's an emergency, but I think I just saw the panda that everyone's looking for.'"

Ziegler said she'd just taken off her boots when she got the call from dispatch. "I only live five minutes away from there, so I probably got there in three," she said. Masala had scaled a fruit tree in someone's yard and Hancock was standing there keeping an eye on her. Ziegler said she shined her flashlight up on the tree and "there was her little panda face and I knew we were good," which caused her to "give Loretta the biggest hug she's probably ever gotten."

Ziegler said she then sat down at the base of the tree to block Masala's escape route and didn't move until about a dozen zoo staffers had arrived and set up a makeshift fence around the perimeter. It took a couple of hours and the help of a biscuit to lure Masala out of the tree and into a travel crate.

Masala's now back at the zoo, where she is being kept in quarantine to make sure she didn't pick up any communicable diseases — like canine distemper — during her adventure. (Ziegler said early indications are she's in great health.) As to how Masala escaped, it remains a mystery. Ziegler and zoo staff have studied every inch of the red panda enclosure, and haven't found any weaknesses. "It's still unclear (how she got out), and it's kind of frustrating to have to continue to say that," Ziegler said. While they're fairly athletic, Ziegler said red pandas aren't really jumpers, positing that it would have taken a miraculous leap for Masala to have cleared her enclosure and noting that keepers found no signs of a landing on the other side. "It just makes me feel like that's not what happened ... but other than sprouting wings or getting help, we just don't know what happened."

In any event, Masala won't be rejoining her family back in the enclosure, Ziegler said, as the adolescent panda has long been scheduled for a move to a zoo in Tennessee. With a pre-transfer quarantine necessary anyway, Ziegler said Masala will now stay in her solo enclosure until the time comes to ship her via a United flight to her new home in the coming weeks.

While dreadful and nightmarish in many respects, Ziegler said the past week has left her with a warm feeling about the community she calls home. "It was all so positive," Ziegler said of the community response. "Just the support that was shown made us feel like people really do love this zoo, and they love that panda."

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