What Happened to Sunny the Red Panda? Zoo Says Cold Case Disappearance Still Hot on Their Minds 4 Years Later

Sunny the red panda disappeared nearly 4 years ago. Despite massive search efforts, no one has seen him since.
Sunny the red panda disappeared nearly 4 years ago. Despite massive search efforts, no one has seen her since. (The Virginia Zoo)

The Virginia Zoo says it is unlikely other carnivorous animals in their exhibits feasted on the red panda that disappeared in January 2017.

It has been nearly four years since Sunny the red panda disappeared from the Virginia Zoo, and the mystery of its cold case disappearance continues to haunt zoo staff.

“What could have happened to her?” Zoo director Greg Bockheim pondered in an interview with the Virginia-Pilot. “I just hope she’s out there somehow and doing well."

Bockheim explained that when he heard of a lemur being stolen from the San Francisco Zoo in October, he couldn’t help but think to Sunny, the then-19-month-old red panda that disappeared from his premises in January 2017.

Red pandas are endangered animals and reportedly highly coveted on the exotic pet trade black market, but Bockheim doesn’t believe it was stolen from the zoo. “She would have been seen by now,” he said. “Friends. Neighbors. Someone would notice a red panda in a cage in your house. They’d report it.”

He said he believes Sunny more likely slipped off a branch extending over the fence line and scurried off.

"In most cases, the animals who do leave their habitat never leave zoo grounds," Rob Vernon of Association of Zoos & Aquariums told the Virginia-Pilot. "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."

But the zoo grounds have been scoured, with the help of the Norfolk Police Department, geothermal cameras, tracking dogs, drones, traps and volunteers.

The hotline they set up for sightings initially got nearly 300 calls a day but most of them turned out to be sightings of foxes and raccoons.

Bockheim said it was also unlikely that another animal at the zoo captured and feasted on Sunny. Zoo keepers had closely examined the droppings of carnivores for any traces of Sunny in the period following its disappearance, and not even a partial carcass was discovered.

So the mystery continues, with a Twitter account posting on Sunny’s behalf reminding the public that red panda continues to be missing.

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