Giant panda cub dies at National Zoo

September 23, 2012

The distress call had gone out at the National Zoo: The week-old giant panda cub was in trouble, perhaps dying, and the keepers had to get it out of the den for treatment, with its agitated 240-pound mother a few feet away.

It was a practiced but dangerous maneuver. Standing behind protective bars, one keeper, Marty Dearie, distracted the adult female with honey-flavored water, while another, Juan Rodriguez, reached in with a long-handled “grabber” and pulled the cub through the bars.

The baby was then whisked to the keepers’ office in the panda compound where veterinarian Nancy Boedeker used her fingers to do gentle heart massage on an animal that weighed about four ounces.

But there was no heartbeat and no respiration, and after about 10 minutes Boedeker stopped. The zoo’s giant panda cub, born amid hope and fanfare Sept. 16, was pronounced dead at 10:28 a.m., after a life of not quite 61 / 2 days.

Somber zoo officials on Sunday painted this portrait of the cub’s final moments, along with the effort of keepers and veterinarians to save its life.

The cub’s sudden death struck the zoo community on a beautiful fall morning, as the facility on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington was thronged with visitors. The staff was “devastated,” zoo director Dennis Kelly said. (Update: National Zoo: newborn panda cub had liver abnormalities, and fluid in abdomen)

“I’m worried about my keepers,” he said. “They’ve got 2,000 animals to take care of, and they’ve got to remain safe.”

And it upended, for now, all the plans for a new era of giant pandas at the National Zoo and in the Washington region. Zoo officials said it was too early to discuss what they might do about their pandas in the future.

The zoo’s giant panda population stands at two: Mei Xiang, the cub’s mother, and mate Tian Tian, its father. The cub was so small that the zoo did not yet know its sex.

“Distressed vocalizations” from Mei Xiang were heard at about 9:17 a.m. Sunday, and keepers realized “this is not right, this is not good,” zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said.

Kelly said Mei Xiang “got up and moved off of where she was holding the cub, and made a honk,” which was unusual for her. “We surmised that that was a distress call,” he said.

The keepers also had stopped hearing the cub’s healthy squealing, which had gone on for a week and was a sign of a thriving newborn.

Emergency protocols were activated, and within minutes a team of four keepers and two veterinarians had assembled in the keepers’ office in the panda house.

The effort to extract the cub from the den was delicate. “[Mei Xiang] is a 240-pound wild bear with maternal instincts,” Kelly said. “And she’s upset.”

First the keepers tried calling Mei Xiang to get her out of the den, but that didn’t work, zoo officials said.

Then Dearie and Rodriguez entered an area adjacent to the den, where they were protected by bars but could reach the cub if they could distract the mother.

Dearie did so by splashing honey water near her, and at about 10:15 a.m. Rodriquez got the cub.

He handed it to Dearie, who rushed the cub to the keepers’ office, which is stocked with incubators and other emergency equipment.

Boedeker tried to intubate the cub to establish a good flow of oxygen, but its airway was too tiny, Kelly said.

She then did heart massage for about 10 minutes, Kelly said, and stopped when it was clear that the cub could not be revived.

“This is devastating news for the entire Smithsonian National Zoo community,” he said. “Our staff, our volunteers, the people all over Washington and all over the nation that were following the wonderful announcement of the birth of this cub.”

The zoo said it was not clear what happened, but a necropsy was scheduled to be performed Sunday night by John Roberts, a zoo veterinarian pathologist. The zoo said it might have some preliminary results by Monday.

“We’re all very anxious to know what happened,” chief veterinarian Suzan Murray said.

Murray noted that upon preliminary examination, “the cub looked just fabulous. There were no external signs of trauma, no signs of clinical illness or disease, nor had we seen anything in the last few days or the past 24 hours to indicate that anything was wrong.”

“The cub was just beautiful,” Murray said, her voice shaking for a second. “Beautiful little body. Beautiful face, with the markings just beginning to show around the eye. Couldn’t have been more beautiful.”

Mei Xiang had been “a fabulous mom, taking very good care of the cub,” Murray said. Indeed, Mei Xiang had been holding the cub so close to her body, apparently to nurse it and keep it warm, that zoo officials had scarcely been able to glimpse it on the panda cam monitoring the den.

It was the sixth giant panda cub to die at the zoo, going back to the 1980s. A seventh cub was stillborn. The only cub to survive into maturity has been Tai Shan, who was born to Mei Xiang and Tian Tian in 2005.

Giant panda cubs, like many newborns at the zoo, are extremely fragile.

Murray said the zoo’s giant panda pair appeared to be in good health Sunday, although the staff had a close eye on Mei Xiang because it was the first time she had lost a cub.

The cub was born a week ago, at 10:46 p.m. Sept. 16, to jubilation across the region.

The surprise birth came after five failed attempts to impregnate Mei Xiang, and zoo experts thought the chance of her having another cub was less than 10 percent.

“There are so many things that can go wrong in the first week of life,” Murray said.

In 2010, a newborn red panda cub died at the zoo. That cub was found lifeless on July 7 and was rushed to the zoo’s veterinary hospital, where its death was confirmed. The male cub, born June 16, 2010, was the first red panda cub born at the zoo in 15 years.

The zoo said there is a 50 percent mortality rate for red panda cubs born in captivity.

Much smaller than giant pandas, red pandas resemble a cross between a fox and a raccoon.

In the 1980s, five giant panda cubs were born to Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, who were given to the United States by China in 1972.

Ling-Ling had her first cub in 1983, but it died of pneumonia three hours later. She had another cub that was stillborn in 1984. In 1987, she had twins, which is not uncommon among giant pandas, experts say.

One of the twins died immediately and the other died of an infection four days later.

She produced another cub in 1989, but it died of pneumonia 23 hours after it was born.

Ling-Ling died in 1992 and Hsing-Hsing in 1999.

Zoo visitors on Sunday were dismayed by the cub’s death.

Rose Barnaba, 33, said she cried when she heard the news.

“The whole thought of a mother losing a child — whether it’s a human or an animal — that really hits close to home,” said Barnaba, a Baltimore resident. Sitting nearby was her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah, who, like the cub, was conceived through artificial insemination, Barnaba said.

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A few feet away, Nancy Jackson, 62, and her granddaughter Isabel sat at a table near the panda exhibit. Residents of Madison, Wis., the two were in town for a wedding and wanted to see the cub.

Jackson said this would be her granddaughter’s first experience with death. Jackson said she needed to treat the issue “very carefully.” She didn’t want to ruin Isabel’s trip.

Pandas “exude this cuteness and this cuddliness, and there’s something spiritual about them,” Jackson said. “I feel sorry for the mother because I’m sure she is feeling the loss.”

“What loss?” said 6-year-old Isabel, who had a pink butterfly painted on her face.

Jackson mumbled nervously and said, “We’ll talk about it later.”

When Patricia Valle, 37, moved to the United States from Bolivia nine years ago, one of the first things she did was visit the pandas at the National Zoo. “In my country, you would never see any pandas,” she said, adding that she was in awe of the “tender” creatures.

The Waldorf resident said she visited the zoo with her sons, ages 4 and 8, on Sunday so that they could understand what she’d felt nine years ago.

For Marc Stress and his family, the pandas were a “big part” of why they came to the zoo, he said. He added that his son, Orion, 7, made it one of their top priorities to see the pandas. Throughout the day, they checked the zoo’s panda cams on their cellphones.

Stress, 43, a graphic designer who lives in Syracuse, N.Y., said it was a “tremendous loss” for not only the pandas, an endangered species, but also the zoo’s staff, which worked many hours to help the pandas reproduce. He said that Orion would hear the sad news later. It was the boy’s birthday weekend.

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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