National Zoo's oldest male sloth bear dies

Merlin, born at the National Zoo in 1981, was part of the zoo's Asia Trail exhibit. He fathered seven cubs.
Merlin, born at the National Zoo in 1981, was part of the zoo's Asia Trail exhibit. He fathered seven cubs. (James A. Parcell/the Washington Post)
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By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

The National Zoo's oldest male sloth bear, Merlin, died Wednesday after surgery to repair a partially twisted spleen. It was the zoo's third animal death in a month.

Zoo officials said Merlin had a history of gastric volvulus, or a twisted stomach. He had surgery after a routine physical Monday and initially seemed fine, officials said. But he had difficulty recovering from the anesthesia and began vomiting blood-tinged fluid that afternoon.

A necropsy was to be performed to determine the cause of death. Results are not expected for several weeks.

Merlin was born at the Smithsonian zoo in Washington in December 1981. For the past several years, he shared quarters with two female sloth bears, Hana and Khali, as part of the zoo's Asia Trail exhibit. He fathered seven cubs.

Sloth bears, native to the forests of India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, are known for shaggy, dusty-black coats; pale, short-haired muzzles; and long, curved claws. They eat ants and termites. When eating, their lips and long snouts enable them to create a vacuumlike seal to suck up insects.

Sloth bears are the only bears that carry their young on their backs.

Officials estimate that there are 6,000 to 11,000 sloth bears in the wild, and the Red List of Threatened Species created by the International Union for Conservation of Nature categorizes them as vulnerable.

On Friday, National Zoo officials said that two of its scimitar-horned oryx, which are extinct in the wild, had died last month. On Oct. 24, a 17-year-old female oryx died at the zoo's main campus. The animal had been anesthetized two days earlier for a routine health assessment but became agitated. The next day, she had difficulty using her hind legs and died while being anesthetized again for an emergency follow-up examination.

On Oct. 14, a 16-year-old male oryx died at the zoo's Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va., while being anesthetized for a routine reproductive assessment. It went into cardiac and respiratory arrest and could not be revived.

Scimitar-horned oryx once lived in the northern African countries of Egypt, Senegal and Chad. The National Zoo has one oryx remaining on exhibit and a herd of 13 at the research center.


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