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National Zoo mourns sudden death of baby panda

September 24, 2012|By Amy Hubbard | This post has been corrected, as indicated below.
  • Dennis W. Kelly, director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo, and Suzan Murray, chief veterinarian at the zoo, discuss the sudden death of a baby panda cub.
Dennis W. Kelly, director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo, and… (Mark Wilson / Getty Images )

Giant panda cubs are very vulnerable in the first days of life, and they can die for a number of reasons, but that didn't make the death of the baby panda at Washington's National Zoo any less painful for employees and visitors there.

The panda -- who had not yet lived a week -- had not been named, and officials hadn't been able to tell whether it was a boy or a girl.

The cub made its last recorded noise just before 9 a.m. Sunday, according to an Associated Press report. About 15 minutes later, its mother, Mei Xiang, made an unusual honking noise, moving away from the nest she'd been sharing with the baby.

PHOTOS: Panda cubs, moms; National Zoo mourns cub

The Washington Post detailed how the panda was rushed to a zookeeper's office, where a veterinarian gently performed heart massage, trying to revive the 4-ounce animal. This went on for about 10 minutes before the vet gave up.

As the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday, zoo officials were emotional at a news conference.  The zoo said it did not appear that the cub suffered infection or trauma. A necropsy was reportedly set for Sunday, with results in about two weeks.

"This is devastating for all of us here," National Zoo director Dennis Kelly said at a news conference, according to the AP. "It's hard to describe how much passion and energy and thought and care has gone into this."

In the cub's first weeks of life, it can develop an infection or be crushed by its huge mother, who has to keep it warm enough and provide the baby with enough to eat. It's a precarious time.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the cub’s father via artificial insemination, are on loan to the National Zoo from China, and the couple has only produced one living cub, Tai Shan, in 2005. All offspring are required to be returned to China when they are old enough.

Officials have previously said that if Tian Tian’s sperm failed to get Mei Xiang pregnant, the zoo would seek pandas more likely to produce offspring.

Happier panda news has come from the San Diego Zoo in the past week. A panda cub born July 29 continued to gain weight and develop, L.A. Now reported.

The cub weighs 4.9 pounds, and veterinarians believe that its eyes are almost open. The male remains nameless; by Chinese tradition, pandas are not named until they are 100 days old.

[For the Record, 7:41 a.m. PDT Sept. 24: An earlier version of this online post indicated that officials at the San Diego Zoo had said Sunday that the panda cub born there in July was continuing to gain weight. Zoo officials actually made the announcement last week.]

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