Shama, the mate of the red panda Rusty who gained fame by briefly escaping from the National Zoo in June 2013, was euthanized by zookeepers Saturday after she was infected by a parasite.
Shama and Rusty had recently become the parents of three red panda cubs. The 7-year-old was also the mother, with a different mate, of two female cubs who were transferred to other zoos so that they could mate with other pandas.
Shama was the lady who lured Rusty to Washington, long before he became the zoo’s most famous escapee. He arrived from Nebraska in order to breed with Shama. They lived together at the National Zoo at the time of Rusty’s dramatic escape to Adams Morgan.
About six months later, they were moved to Front Royal, Va., to the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute — to give them a quieter place to breed, not to prevent Shama’s vagabond mate from wandering off into the wilds of Washington, the zoo said.
The crowds drawn to the panda exhibit at the zoo by the birth of giant panda Bao Bao could have disrupted the red pandas when they tried to breed, which pandas have a notoriously difficult time doing even in the best of circumstances.
With plenty of time to themselves in Front Royal, the couple successfully conceived three cubs, which were born on June 26. The zoo released a video of Shama nursing the cubs.
Pamela Baker-Masson, a National Zoo spokeswoman, said that taking care of triplets is tough on any mother, pandas included. “It’s very rare for a red panda to successfully raise three. Most have one or two,” she said. “It’s hard to produce enough milk, to take care of them. It’s a lot of work.”
Zookeepers had been keeping a close watch on the harried mother, and on Wednesday, they noticed that something wasn’t quite right. “Our colleagues who are keepers, they are so astute, and they get to know their animals incredibly well, so they noticed her behavior was off,” Baker-Masson said. She was not paying as much attention to her young as usual, didn’t finish her meal and seemed to lack strength.
Despite medicine, she deteriorated quickly, progressing to lethargy and to head-bobbing, which is characteristic of neurological problems in pandas. She was euthanized Saturday.
Zookeepers determined after her death that she was suffering from severe swelling of the brain due to a parasite. Rusty and the three cubs are receiving preventive anti-parasite treatment, the zoo said, and the three cubs are being fed by hand.
The zoo said that one of the three cubs is being treated for pneumonia. Though they are now motherless, Baker-Masson said, “We know that they’re active. We know that they’re feeding. They are responding to the staff, and the staff are expert at what they do. And they do have each other. They have been in the nest box together since birth.”
As for Rusty, he was separated from his mate and offspring shortly after their birth, just as male red pandas would be in the wild.
He would have recognized Shama if he saw her, but he probably would not have missed her, Baker-Masson said. “In the wild he would go mate with somebody else next year.”