The end of freedom for Babu the escape artist

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The Independent Online

After several days on the run, Babu was discovered 60ft up a tree, almost a mile away from his Birmingham home. Keepers think he survived on a diet of fruit, berries and the contents of at least one bird table in the middle of a city park.

One of two males brought to the centre from Bristol Zoo in March this year, Babu, who looks more like a racoon than a giant panda, managed to stay out of sight despite widespread public appeals for help in finding him. Red pandas are slow-moving on the ground but remarkably agile in the trees and with their thick russet fur a perfect camouflage in autumnal Britain, two-year-old Babu was able to stay hidden.

Despite residents of Birmingham being asked to keep a lookout, check trees and search garden sheds, the endangered animal - now nicknamed Houdini - confounded his pursuers. He was eventually spotted on Wednesday evening up a tree in Holders Lane Woods by a passer-by, Sandra Mack-Williams.

"She told her father she was going out too look for the panda," her mother Faye said. "He said to look for crows; if you see a lot of crows and they are making a lot of noise look up the tree and you might find him."

Yesterday a team of six keepers and tree-climbing experts spent an hour and a half coaxing Babu, who is one of only 70 red pandas in the country, down before netting him and returning him to the nature centre. The bear had travelled just over half a mile from his home.

Colin Parker, warden of Birmingham Nature Centre, said: "I haven't slept since he's been missing; I've been so worried.

"His brother Tensing has been pacing around ever since he left. Pacing up and down is most unusual for these animals; he must have been missing his brother."

Although described as usually quiet and docile by his keepers, it was Babu's second attempted escape in a week. Just days before he finally managed to get clear of the nature reserve he had been discovered in a neighbouring garden. On that occasion he was quickly apprehended and returned.

Geoff Cole, Birmingham's assistant director for parks, sports and events, said: "We are immensely relieved to have Babu back and reunited with his brother Tensing. Since their arrival here, the red pandas have been the centre's most popular attraction. We are totally committed to the care of these animals and the breeding programme that they are a part of."

Yesterday the centre said it was carrying out an urgent review of its security and a number of trees had been pruned around the perimeter fence in a bid to make a third breakout unlikely. "Because of their slow demeanour I think they may have lulled their keepers into a false sense of security, thinking that they could not escape," a spokesman said. "It is amazing really how he could have got out. These animals can climb along the thinnest of branches and then just fall off as they bow."

Britain's favourite escapees

* The Tamworth Two, were pigs that fled from a Wiltshire slaughterhouse and went on the run. Police, journalists and public raced to find the two, nicknamed Butch and Sundance, and their escapades made headlines for days. They now live at the Rare Breeds Centre, near Ashford, Kent.

* In 2002 an 18-stone, hairy, black boar was nicknamed McQueen by the media after his great escape from a Stirlingshire slaughterhouse, which involved jumping a 6ft wall. He was never recaptured, but was believed to have been killed several months later.

* Mojo the monkey became a celebrity after escaping from Belfast Zoo in June this year. The Colobus monkey ran away after an "argument" with his dad, but returned to his enclosure a week later. The two could not be reconciled, so he and his six brothers were sent to a sanctuary in South Africa.

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