WASHINGTON — As condolences poured in from around the world, National Zoo officials waited Monday for word on why a 6-day-old panda cub died and lamented a heartbreaking setback to their closely watched breeding program.
The cub had liver abnormalities and fluid in its abdomen, but a cause of death will not be known until full necropsy results are available within two weeks.
The cub died Sunday morning, less than a week after its birth surprised and delighted zoo officials and visitors. Zookeepers had all but given up on the panda mother’s chances of conceiving after six years of failed attempts.
“Every loss is hard,” National Zoo director Dennis Kelly said. “This one is especially devastating.”
The cub appeared to be in good condition. It had been drinking its mother’s milk. And it wasn’t accidentally crushed to death by its mother, which has happened to other panda cubs in captivity.
Native to China, giant pandas have long been the face of the movement to preserve endangered species. A few thousand are believed to remain in the wild, and there are a few hundred in captivity.
The zoo was given its first set of pandas in 1972 as a gift from China to commemorate President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the country.
Thousands of people had watched an online video feed of the cub’s mother, 14-year-old Mei Xiang, hoping to catch a glimpse of the newborn during its few days of life. Fans from around the country and the world shared their sympathy on social media sites, and many said they shared an emotional connection with the burly, black-and-white bear.
Mei Xiang has started eating and interacting with her keepers again. She slept Sunday while cradling a toy in an apparent show of maternal instinct, Kelly said.
Suzan Murray, the zoo’s chief veterinarian, cautioned that while it may appear the panda is grieving, Mei Xiang is a wild animal and her thoughts and emotions are not well understood.
Mei Xiang’s only cub, Tai Shan, was born in 2005 and became the zoo’s star attraction before he was returned to China in 2010. Since his birth, there had been five unsuccessful attempts to impregnate Mei Xiang.
Zoo officials said they’re focused on Mei Xiang’s health but didn’t rule out trying to breed her again.
The mortality rate for panda cubs in the wild is unknown, but in captivity, 26 percent of males and 20 percent of females die in their first year. The zoo’s first panda couple, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, had five cubs during the 1980s, but none lived more than a few days.
The new cub’s liver, about the size of a kidney bean, was harder than usual and discolored, Murray said. The fluid in the cub’s abdomen was unusual and could have been a symptom of the liver problem, she said.
The staff was taking the death especially hard because of the work they’d put in over the past six years to produce another cub, Kelly said. But even those who only watched Mei Xiang online were heartbroken.
“So sad watching her!” one Facebook commenter wrote. “She seems quite distressed and seems like she keeps looking for her baby. Can’t figure out why they don’t bring him/her back.”
Printed on Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 as: Cub's death stirs up grief