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Following Panda Cub’s Death, Mei Xiang Recovering, Zoo Staff Learning

More panda news, from the mouths of the National Zoo’s director and chief veterinarian.

Mei Xiang. Photograph courtesy of the National Zoo's Flickr feed.

National Zoo director Dennis Kelly and chief veterinarian Suzan Murray held a joint press conference this morning to discuss the death of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian’s panda cub over the weekend. Kelly began by saying that there is “great sadness amongst the staff” at the zoo, calling the loss of the cub “especially devastating.”

He went on to say that the zoo’s staffers have been collaborating with their Chinese colleagues throughout the necropsy process, and that their collective concern at present is for Mei Xiang. Good news there: Mama bear is slowly returning to her normal routine. She voluntarily went into a training chute this morning to interact with keepers, have blood drawn, and eat bamboo and biscuits. She also slept relatively peacefully through the night, cradling a dog toy, much as she had before the cub was born.

A full report on the reason for the cub’s death should be available in the next couple of weeks, Murray said. Doctors will examine each of her organs between now and then, including the heart and lungs, which looked normal, and the liver, which appeared hard in places and was not uniform in color, as it should have been. Murray stressed that no conclusions have been drawn about the death as yet, since close study of the tiny organs—the abnormal liver, for example, is about the size of a kidney bean—is required. The staff was able to rule out crushing and suffocation, though, and Murray said that “it was nice for [the staff] to verify that Mei Xiang was in fact a good mom, that she protected the cub and did not crush it.”

Given what appears to be a pretty quick return to normalcy, Murray said that Mei Xiang “should be in good shape” to try to conceive again next year. The 14-year-old panda is not too old to birth viable offspring, Murray explained.

Tian Tian, meanwhile, remains “blissfully unaware” of the death of his cub, which Murray described as not abnormal. Since pandas are very solitary animals, she said, the males are generally not involved in raising cubs.

So how will this affect the zoo’s panda-reproduction initiatives and its arrangements with China? Kelly said this death will be a learning experience, and that beyond that, future plans are currently behind Mei Xiang’s health on their triage list. He also stressed that sometimes these things just happen, and that changes to the zoo’s procedures wouldn’t necessarily have resulted in a different outcome. “Even if we knew everything we know today,” he said, “we probably would’ve followed the same protocols.”

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