And it worked.
On Monday afternoon, a Washington resident spotted Rusty and posted his photo on Twitter, calling on zoo keepers to come get him. "Red panda in our neighborhood! 20th NW and Biltmore. Please come save him! @nationalzoo1," tweeted @AshleyFoughty.
Shortly afterward, the zoo updated the thousands of people following Rusty's adventure to say that he was safe and sound again.
"Rusty the red panda has been recovered, crated & is headed safely back to the National Zoo!" zoo keepers tweeted. "Thank you so much to everyone who helped us look for and find him!"
Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said the National Zoo made a good move when they used social media to find Rusty.
"That makes sense," he said. "Twitter is the freshest source of information. If you get lucky, the topic can generate a lot of interest."
And it did. The zoo's first tweet about the missing panda on Monday night was retweeted 3,339 times. "We are looking for a missing red panda, a male named Rusty. He was last seen at 6 p.m. last night."
The zoo did a good job including a twit pic of Rusty. In a following tweet, a phone number was included in case of a sighting.
However, Gottheil said the zoo also should have used a hashtag to help grow the online discussion and to help interested Twitter users find information about the search and rescue.
The zoo also used Twitter to provide information on where the panda might have been hiding, as well as to warn searchers that he is a wild animal and could be dangerous.
" Red pandas typically spend the warm daytime hours resting, so it's likely Rusty is somewhere in or near the Zoo hiding in a tree," the zoo tweeted, "Please help us keep an eye out for Rusty. Remember: red pandas are wild animals & will bite if cornered or scared."
While many people in the Twitterverse were sharing the zoo's tweets to help find Rusty, others used it as an opportunity to have a little fun.
"Doubt Rusty the Red Panda could go far. It's so hard to park in DC," tweeted @markknoller.
One clever Twitter user who tweets as the Bronx Zoo cobra that went missing in March 2011 and became a Twitter sensation, also chimed in, tweeting, "I have an alibi! RT @NationalZoo We are looking for a missing red panda named Rusty. He was last seen at 6 p.m."
The Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington used Twitter to find its missing red panda, Rusty.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is email@example.com.
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