A Sad Day at the National Zoo

A giant-panda cub born on September 16 has died

Sep 24, 2012 | By Cameron Keady with AP reporting
SUSAN WALSH—AP

It was a somber Sunday for the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. After hearing sounds of distress from its mother, Mei Xiang, zookeepers discovered the giant-panda cub born last weekend had died.

The zoo workers who took care of Mei Xiang and her cub are puzzled by the cub’s death. They are also very upset. "Every loss is hard," said National Zoo director Dennis Kelly. "This one is especially devastating."

A Sad Discovery

National Zoo officials are devastated from the loss of the panda cub.
CHIP SOMODEVILLA—GETTY IMAGES
National Zoo officials are devastated from the loss of the panda cub.

Zookeepers were alerted when Mei Xiang made an unusual honking noise on Sunday morning. Upon arriving at the panda’s den, keepers found the 6-day-old cub dead. National Zoo officials say the cub had abnormalities in its liver, but they could not immediately determine a cause of death. The cub had shown no signs of suffering or infection. Officials expect to know more after a medical examination in the next two weeks. The tiny cub had not yet been named. Zoo officials had planned to follow Chinese custom and give the cub a name after 100 days.

Fragile Cubs

Panda cubs are extremely delicate infants. They are born entirely blind and covered with only a thin coat of fur. Most are not longer than five inches at birth. Developments are slow in a cub’s early days. A baby panda cannot see for more than a month after being born and cannot walk for the first 75-80 days of its life. It depends entirely on its mother for guidance and comfort.

The relationship between a panda cub and its mother is very important but can also be dangerous. Grown female pandas are about 1,000 times heavier than their cubs. While attempting to nurse, mothers can accidentally crush their fragile young. Though this tragic accident is common, the cub found at the National Zoo showed no signs of trauma. Its heart and lungs were intact, confirming that Mei Xiang did not crush the cub.

Officials say Mei Xiang is not acting like her usual self but is slowly beginning to eat again. She is reported to be holding a plastic toy at night as comfort for the loss of her cub. Zookeepers will continue to watch and monitor Mei Xiang until she returns to her normal behavior. The National Zoo hopes to learn from this tragedy and gain a better understanding of cub health in giant pandas.