Should the resuscitation continue?
“No,” Smith said.
People hugged and wept. And for a few moments Sunday morning in the quiet of the panda house, the animal’s body, outwardly perfect, was left on the blanket so the staff could grieve.
Smith and other zoo officials, who recounted the scene, said Monday that a necropsy performed on the cub’s body showed unusual fluid in its abdomen and irregularities in its liver. But it was not clear if that played a role in the animal’s demise.
The zoo’s chief veterinarian, Suzan Murray, said at a news conference that results of lab tests on tissue samples, expected within the next week or so, could help identify the cause of death.
The cub, born Sept. 16, had heart and lungs that appeared normal, suggesting that suffocation was not a factor, Murray said. There was milk in the cub’s digestive tract, a sign that it had been nursing successfully.
Murray said that the cub appears to have been female, although it was so small that lab tests will be needed to confirm that finding. Even without a conclusive ruling, she said, zoo officials have decided to refer to the cub as a “she.”
The cub’s surprise birth came after five failed attempts to impregnate the zoo’s female adult giant panda, Mei Xiang, and experts thought the chance of her having another cub was less than 10 percent.
Zookeepers were overjoyed, and zoo director Dennis Kelly said last week it was a glorious event for the Washington area.
Monday, though, zoo officials were drawn and emotional in recounting details of the cub’s death.
“We were living the promise,” Smith, the panda curator, said at the zoo, her eyes filling with tears. “The promise of all these years to come, and how amazing it was going to be.
“Part of it is . . . the loss of this animal, but it’s also the loss of all that wonder that we were about to be a part of,” she said. “How much fun we were all going to have.”
Smith said the cub appeared to be doing fine early Sunday morning.
“We saw the cub . . . at 8:30,” she said. “It was squirming. It was moving.” She said Mei Xiang was holding the cub and both looked well.
Suddenly, about 45 minutes later, Mei Xiang got up and began honking in “distressed vocalization” for about 30 seconds, and keepers saw that the cub had stopped moving.
An emergency was declared. The cub was removed from the den and rushed to the keepers’ room in the panda house. There, zoo veterinarian Nancy Boedeker began heart massage while staff members, including director Kelly, looked on.
Tense minutes passed.
Smith remembered that the cub was a “beautiful little baby. Absolutely beautiful. Perfectly formed. . . . Black spots were just starting to come out on its eyes. Just a beautiful little baby panda.”