News & Politics

Sloth Bear at National Zoo Ate Two of Her Cubs, so Humans Are Raising the Third

Zoo employees intervened before the mother could finish off her newborn litter.

The survivor. Photograph courtesy National Zoo.

After a sloth bear at the National Zoo ate two of the three cubs she birthed on December 29, animal keepers weren’t about to let her eat the third, the zoo announced today. The surviving female cub is being raised by human hands, a decision that likely saved the young creature’s life.

The mother, Khali, ate the first cub about 20 minutes after giving birth. Although she then appeared attentive and caring toward the remaining two cubs, according to the zoo’s surveillance cameras, Khali a second cub on January 5, and distanced herself from the last cub the next day. At that point, the zoo’s staff made the decision to retrieve the last newborn bear from the exhibit and raise it by hand.

“Our team is always prepared to intervene and hand-rear a cub if it appears that a cub is not thriving,” Tony Barthel, the curator of the zoo’s Asia Trail section, says in a press release.

While a shocking development, the zoo says it is not uncommon for carnivores to ingest stillborn or even live cubs. The cubs born in December were the third time Khali has had cubs, although she raised a pair born in 2004 and did not eat either of those cubs.

The zoo says its animal keepers are with the new cub 24 hours a day, bottle feeding it, carrying it around, and playing with it in a den. The cub is believed to be the only specimen of any bear species currently being hand-raised at the National Zoo or any of its peer institutions.

The still-unnamed cub will probably not go on display until summer, but the zoo hopes to start having her interact with its other adult sloth bears over the next few months, though it may be a while before it lives side-by-side with Khali again.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.