Death of Baby Panda Cub is "Devastating," National Zoo Officials Say

Unexpected death is particularly surprising because cub "looked fabulous"

By: Garrett M. Graff

What had been shaping up to be one of the most exciting and historic weeks for Washington in years—with the Nationals making the baseball playoffs, the Redskins looking strong, and a new baby panda at the Smithsonian's National Zoo—turned unexpectedly tragic Sunday morning when the six-day-old, unnamed panda died of unknown causes.

Speaking at a hastily arranged 1 p.m. press conference, Zoo Director Dennis Kelly called the baby's death "devastating," a phrase he repeated a half-dozen times in remarks outside the Panda House.

The first warning that something was amiss came shortly after 9 a.m. when mother Mei Xiang made what Kelly and zoo staff characterized as a "honk," an abnormal distress call. Mei Xiang has been alone with the cub in the Panda House since it was born last Sunday night, as is standard protocol following the birth of a cub. Zoo officials activated emergency procedures and shortly after 10 a.m. a keeper was able to distract the mother while a second keeper retrieved the cub's body with what head zoo vet Suzan Murray called "a modified lacrosse stick." The cub was taken into a special emergency lab, set up next to Mei Xiang's den, with incubators and emergency resuscitation equipment. While the cub had no heartbeat and was not breathing when retrieved, zoo staff performed CPR briefly before the cub was pronounced dead at 10:28 a.m. The last vocalization from the cub came shortly before 9 a.m. and was characterized as "more of a grunt than a squeal."

"We're all very anxious to know what happened," Murray said this afternoon, adding that there was no sign of infection or trauma. "There are so many things that can happen in the first week of life."    

The baby cub, Murray said, "looked fabulous," with a "beautiful body and face." It weighed about 100 grams, roughly the size of a stick of butter, and its markings were just beginning to show. Its gender is still unknown. A necropsy will be conducted today and a full report will be due in about two weeks. 

"This is just devastating for all of us here," Kelly said. Kelly, who lives close to the Zoo in Woodley Park, was informed of the cub's distress by phone this morning and was on scene to monitor the life-saving procedures minutes later. 

Zoo officials informed their Chinese panda counterparts, who, Kelly said, expressed "great sadness" over the news of the loss of the panda. The survival rate of panda cubs in captivity is improving, but every panda birth, Kelly said, was still "difficult."

The Panda House will remain closed until zoo staff are sure that mother Mei Xiang is okay, although early reports this morning are that she's eating and acting normally. Father Tian Tian will be out in his separate enclosure as normal tomorrow.