Newborn lion dies at National Zoo

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; 5:22 PM

The National Zoo had the highest hopes for its newborn lion cub.

Hours after his birth Tuesday morning, the zoo had a public cub cam up and running. The newborn was nursing. His first-time mother was giving him excellent care. After months of preparation, the zoo had its first African lion cub in more than 20 years.

Then, Thursday afternoon, keepers became alarmed when the cub, who appeared to be sleeping, did not respond to his mother when she licked him. Zoo officials moved his mother, Nababiep, out of the compound so they could go in and check, officials said. When they did, at about 5 p.m., they found that the cub had died.

Dismayed zoo officials said Friday that a necropsy showed that the cub had inhaled a piece of hay that lodged in a lung and sparked pneumonia, which was the cause of death. Zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said that the cub had been nursing and had milk in his stomach, and that there did not seem to be anything else wrong with him.

The zoo, which has two female lions and one male, said it is common practice to use hay and straw as bedding for animals.

Baker-Masson said the zoo staff was crushed by the loss. "This is not an easy one," she said. "You cannot believe how excited we were Tuesday."

Dennis Kelly, director of the zoo, said in a written statement: "Losing this lion cub is devastating for all of us."

"I believe this was a one-in-a-million fluke," he said. "Unfortunately, this is the downside to the 'cycle of life.' But the animal care team and zoo staff are consummate professionals, and I know they've learned a tremendous amount from creating the pride, breeding the lions and getting Nababiep through her first birth. We mourn this loss, yet keep our focus on the best care for the lion pride."

Baker-Masson said the zoo hoped that with the absence of the cub, Nababiep would be able to breed again soon.

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