Smaller of panda twins dies at Washington zoo


One of the two gi­ant panda twins born at Washington’s Smith­so­nian Na­tional Zoo over the week­end died on Wed­nes­day, turn­ing un­ex­pected joy to tragedy in a mat­ter of days.

Af­ter an ul­tra­sound re­vealed a pos­si­ble preg­nancy a week ago, zookeep­ers were greeted with another sur­prise Satur­day when 17-year-old panda Mei Xiang gave birth to not one but two baby cubs.

But the keep­ers strug­gled to keep the smaller of the two healthy as Mei Xiang fo­cused her at­ten­tion on the larger cub.

The un­der­size cub — nearly half the weight of the other — passed away Wed­nes­day, four days af­ter its un­ex­pected birth had made it an In­ter­net sen­sa­tion.

“This is a very hard loss for us,” zoo di­rec­tor Dennis Kelly told a press con­fer­ence.

“It’s re­ally hard to keep those lit­tle crea­tures thriv­ing.”

Zookeep­ers faced an up­hill bat­tle af­ter they had trou­ble con­vinc­ing Mei Xiang to swap be­tween car­ing for the smaller and larger cub.

Tiny, blind, nearly hair­less and with lit­tle abil­ity to reg­u­late their own body tem­per­a­ture, new­born pan­das are com­pletely de­pen­dent on their moth­ers.

Keep­ers had stepped into that ma­ter­nal role by bot­tle-feed­ing the cub and ad­min­is­ter­ing an­tibi­otics to stave off in­fec­tions, but their ef­forts ul­ti­mately fell short.

“Af­ter the last swap this morn­ing, we im­me­di­ately no­ticed that it ap­peared weaker, with pos­si­ble res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems,” chief vet­eri­nar­ian Don Neif­fer said.

“We did see some im­prove­ments ... but things turned and his con­di­tion de­clined. We weren’t able to turn things.”

Prior to its death, the cub had stopped gain­ing weight and was only 79.8 grams (2.8 ounces) when it died, as op­posed to the 137.7 grams of its larger sib­ling.

Neif­fer noted that new­born cubs are ex­tremely frag­ile and that the cause of death would not be known for sure un­til an au­topsy is per­formed in the next few weeks.

But he also said the larger cub was do­ing very well.

“We have a very healthy panda. We re­main very op­ti­mistic about the an­i­mal,” Neif­fer said.

In a state­ment, the zoo re­ported the larger cub showed “en­cour­ag­ing signs,” but that they are mon­i­tor­ing it and its mother around the clock “as the cub is still vul­ner­a­ble and the risk re­mains high.”

It is too early to de­ter­mine the sex of ei­ther cub.

‘Na­ture is bru­tal’

The sur­vival of both twins was al­ways a long shot.

Only one of the three sets of panda twins born in the United States has sur­vived and zoo of­fi­cials noted last week that in the wild one twin is usu­ally left to die as it would be too hard on the mother’s body to care for both si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

Neif­fer said that Mei Xiang, who had given birth to two other healthy cubs prior to this week­end, is “a very good mother,” but that she had “some chal­lenges han­dling both cubs.”

Re­ac­tions on Twit­ter ranged from dis­ap­point­ment to prag­matic.

“RIP lit­tle panda baby! Know that you were loved,” said @keukalady.

“Oh no :( the smaller panda twin died. it’s so tragic see­ing ba­bies of an en­dan­gered species pass,” be­moaned @choiy­oung­jaes.

But @jon­m­ladd rea­soned, “Na­ture is bru­tal. Sadly, this is what nor­mally hap­pens to the smaller panda twin.”

(Right) Zoo vol­un­teer and “big panda fan” Mara Strock wipes her eyes at right while lis­ten­ing to the an­nounce­ment of the death of one of the new panda cubs dur­ing a news con­fer­ence at the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Zoo in Washington, Wed­nes­day, Aug. 26.


(Above) This hand­out photo pro­vided by the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Zoo shows keeper Stacey Ta­bel­lario bot­tle feed­ing the smaller of the two gi­ant panda cubs at the zoo in Washington.

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