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Published: Monday, 9/24/2012

Week-old panda cub dies at D.C. zoo

Cause of death under investigation

Mei Xiang, the female giant panda at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, eats breakfast. Mei Xiang, the female giant panda at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, eats breakfast.

WASHINGTON — The giant panda cub born last week at the National Zoo in Washington died Sunday morning, saddening zoo officials and visitors who had heralded its arrival.

The 4-ounce cub, about the size of a stick of butter, showed no obvious signs of distress and made its final recorded noise shortly before 9 a.m. Sunday, zoo officials said.

The cub’s mother, Mei Xiang, then made an unusual honking sound at 9:17 a.m. that her keepers interpreted as a distress call, and she moved away from where she had been nesting with the cub. 

About an hour later, one keeper distracted her with honey water while another used an instrument similar to a lacrosse stick to pick up the cub.

The cub, the gender of which could not be determined externally, was not breathing, and its heart had stopped. 

A veterinarian attempted CPR before it was pronounced dead at 10:28 a.m.

“This is devastating for all of us here,” National Zoo director Dennis Kelly said. “It’s hard to describe how much passion and energy and thought and care has gone into this.”

Four American zoos have pandas, but Washington’s pandas are treated like royalty. 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.

Mei Xiang’s first cub, Tai Shan, born in 2005, had enormous popularity before he was returned to China in 2010.

The new cub, born Sept. 16, had been a surprise at the zoo. Fourteen-year-old Mei Xiang had five failed pregnancies before giving birth.

Panda cubs are  vulnerable to infection and other illness. Cubs have a mortality rate of about 18 percent in the first two weeks of life, zoo officials said.

A necropsy was being conducted to determine the cause of death, and preliminary findings were expected today, said Suzan Murray, the zoo’s chief veterinarian. 

The cub showed no external signs of trauma, she said.

As they did after Tai Shan was born, keepers had been leaving Mei Xiang alone with her offspring, monitoring her on video feeds. Mei Xiang was resting comfortably after the cub’s death, officials said.

In accordance with Chinese tradition, the cub had not yet been named — it was to receive a name after 100 days, on Dec. 24. It will not be named posthumously, Mr. Kelly said.

He said it was too soon to know if the zoo would attempt to breed Mei Xiang again. 

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