“Oh my god, the snow!” I tumbled into the room, completely covered. I stopped in my tracks when I saw Pam’s face.
“Zhu Zhu is missing,” Pam blurted.
It took a couple clicks of my brain to understand what she had said. “Wait, what? Who?”
“Zhu Zhu.” Of course, it had to be Zhu Zhu.
“No idea where she is?”
“It’s a GIANT Panda. How could she have gotten away? What about the others?”
“All the enclosures are shut tight, I checked. I came at 4, to restock the bamboo and clean things up. They’re usually sleeping, so I didn’t check in on everyone until I finished. La La and Ling Ling were snoring in their usual corner, but not Zhu Zhu. Oh Julie, what do we do?” she wailed, grabbing the coat I was shrugging out of.
“I have no idea.” My mind leapt ahead to one of those painful apology press conferences, me having to confess loss of a national treasure. “Who else knows?”
“Just us, I think.” The quiver in her voice did not give me confidence.
“How did you get in this morning?” I had abandoned my hybrid eco-friendly hatch back in a snow bank miles from the zoo and ended up walking the rest of the way.
“The snow wasn’t that bad at 4, and I live practically across the street and always walk, don’t you remember? I don’t even have a car.”
I had forgotten. “Did you check the video feeds?”
“The video is dead, remember? We called it out yesterday.”
“Crap. What about any of the other feeds?” I asked.
“Other feeds? How do we see those?”
“By calling security and asking. You called them, right? Ran the checklist?”
“Checklist? We have a checklist for a missing panda?”
“Of course we do,” I said, grinding my teeth. Getting procedures standardized and written down was a windmill I had tilted at for the last year.
“Well, I called, but no one answered.”
“Okay then, let’s saddle up and head out.”
“Outside? In the snow? Why?”
“Maybe Zhu Zhu left tracks or something.” Pam didn’t attempt to hide her skepticism.
“Got any better ideas?,” I asked.
After taking an excruciating amount of time to get dressed for outside, she silently followed me out, muttering to herself about snow in her boots or something. I wasn’t in a sympathetic mood. I was busy pushing away the panic edging closer. “Why did Zhu Zhu leave? Where did she go?” looped in my head.
The snow was pouring down and the wind was filling the pathways with drifts. At any other time it would be beautiful. I had no idea if we’d find her, but we had to try. I pointed towards the left and started trudging through the snow.
“Wait!” I stopped so quickly that Pam slammed into my back, almost knocking me over. “Is that panda poop?”
Up ahead there was a butt print in the snow and a fresh deposit of bamboo colored panda poop. When you eat almost 40 pounds of the stuff a day, it has to go somewhere. Pandas were not delicate about it.
“It’s her, I know it!” Pam cried.
“Run back and grab more bamboo. I know food is what she’ll be after. I’ll keep looking. You catch up. But run! We have to find her!”
The snow and wind swirled on, but I kept moving. I hadn’t gotten too far when I heard Pam clomping back towards me, bags of bamboo under each arm. “Here,” she huffed, handing me some.
“What’s that up there?” she said, pointing to an over turned trash barrel up ahead. We raced ahead. The trash can was no victim of the storm, it had been assaulted by a bear on a bender. “Definitely Zhu Zhu’s work.”
We followed the path up the hill, looking for more evidence.
“You don’t think she…” I followed Pam’s gaze across the street as we got close to the zoo entrance. On any other day the street would be jammed with traffic, but not today. Did Zhu Zhu get this far?
The coffee shop across the street was open as usual, impervious to the storm. And there was Zhu Zhu, right out front, peering in the front window.
“What do you think she’s doing?”
“She checking out the human zoo,” I said. That’s what it seemed like to me. “Don’t you think so? Hey! What the hell are you doing?”
Pam had her phone out, snapping away. “Isn’t she adorable? We need to put it on Instagram.”
“No we do not! Are you kidding? We’d lose our jobs!”
“I didn’t think about that.”
I flapped my arms to get Zhu Zhu’s attention bus she didn’t spare me a glance. Normally pretty chill, she was still a 300 pound bear out of her element, so I moved forward carefully. I was hoping that the bustling coffee shop employees inside wouldn’t notice the panda peering at them. “Zhu Zhu, don’t you want more snack?” But the bear seemed to be content to stare into the shop, her own personal zoo.
Slowly, slowly we tempted her back across the street, down the path, and into her exhibit. She seemed neither stressed nor in any particular hurry. Finally, she was back where she belonged. Pam and I quadruple checked all the gates, fences and locks, checked them all again, then headed home. The zoo was closed, thankfully.
Jolted awake by the sound of my phone, I knocked it off of my nightstand trying to answer it. “What?” I croaked.
“Open up your Insta,” Pam said.
“Zhu Zhu is trending.”
And there it was. A picture posted on the coffee shop’s account, Zhu Zhu peering in the window.