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Week-old giant panda cub dies at National Zoo

- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2012

Staff at the Smithsonian National Zoo were mourning Sunday as they announced the unexpected death of the giant panda cub born a week earlier.

Zoo officials said at a news conference that the cause of death was unknown, but an initial inspection of the cub showed no signs of external trauma or signs of disease or illness. They expected a preliminary report on the cub by Monday.

"This is devastating for all of us here," National Zoo Director Dennis W. Kelly said. "It's hard to describe how much passion, energy and thought has gone into this."

Mr. Kelly said the last sound from the cub was heard at about 8:53 a.m. More than 20 minutes later, animal keepers and volunteers monitoring the mother and cub via camera heard a "distress call," which was described like a honk, coming from mother panda Mei Xiang.

Doctors rushed to distract Mei Xiang long enough to extricate the cub using what Suzan Murray, chief veterinarian at the National Zoo, said was like a modified lacrosse stick.

The cub was taken to a modified area in the exhibit space that was set up for emergency situations such as this, Mr. Kelly said.

Doctors noticed there was no heartbeat but started CPR and other life-saving measures in an attempt to save the baby panda.

Officials pronounced the cub’s death about 10 minutes after they tried emergency procedures.

Dr. Murray said the cub "was just beautiful. It had a beautiful little body, a beautiful little face, and markings were just showing around the eyes."

Its gender remained unknown, but during post-mortem tests, doctors can determine whether it was a boy or a girl.

Dr. Murray said the cub was about 100 grams, or 4 ounces, at its death.

The cub, born at 10:46 p.m. Sept. 16, became an instant headline. Its birth was somewhat of a surprise to animal keepers, who’d isolated Mei Xiang from direct human contact for several weeks when she began to show signs of a possible pregnancy.

She added that Mei Xiang seemed "very calm" on Sunday afternoon, but as this was the first time the zoo had seen her lose a cub, "we're very observant right now and giving staff time to monitor her closely."

Mother and cub had been given plenty of space away from humans, including zoo personnel, volunteers and panda keepers. The hope, Dr. Murray said, was to allow the two to bond. During the week, Mei Xiang had exhibited all the signs of a good mother.

"There's really no difference between a panda and any other species," Dr. Murray said. "There are so many things that can go wrong in the first week of life."

In 2005, the mother panda gave birth to Tai Shan, a male panda that was sent to his new home in China in 2010.

Mei Xiang came to the National Zoo in December 2000 on loan with male panda Tian Tian as part of a $10 million exchange agreement with the Chinese government.

Prior to the two pandas’ arrival, the zoo had another pair of pandas who failed to produce cubs that survived.

Mr. Kelly said the panda exhibit would be closed until doctors "are confident Mei Xiang is safe and healthy."

The zoo had not named the cub in accordance with the Chinese tradition of waiting 100 days before choosing a name. Officials said the cub would be buried following Chinese tradition as well.

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