August 26, 2013

At National Zoo, 'full-blown panic' when panda cub doesn't move

By MICHAEL E. RUANE The Washington Post

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A newborn giant panda cub born Aug. 23 at the National Zoo is seen being examined by the zoo's animal care staff on Sunday in Washington, D.C.

The Washington Post / Courtney Janney / Smithsonian National Zoo

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Mei Xiang, a giant panda at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, sleeps Saturday less than a day after giving birth to a cub.

The Washington Post / Smithsonian National Zoo

The whirlwind of events in the panda compound began Friday at 3:36 p.m., when the zoo's new high-definition panda cams captured Mei Xiang's water breaking.

Moore said he thinks it was the first time that had been observed with a giant panda, and many experts had no idea that water broke in bears. It makes perfect sense, he said, but "we're learning a lot."

Less than two hours later, in an event caught live on the black-and-white cameras, Mei delivered the first cub. Mother and son were carefully watched, and both seemed to be well.

Keepers waited to see whether a twin might arrive, but after midnight, they concluded that a second cub was probably not coming. Pandas often have twins, but they usually arrive within about six hours of each other.

On Saturday, keepers twice tried to get the cub from the mother for an examination, but they were not able to distract her enough.

Then, at about 7:30 p.m., the second cub was born, and for a few minutes, Mei groomed it, all while holding the first cub tightly under her arm.

"Her instinct would be just to pick it up," Murray said. "But then she's looking for cues from that infant" indicating that it was alive. "When she realized it wasn't alive, that's when she let it down."

Murray said the second cub's physical deformities were extensive. It was missing part of its upper skull, brain, eyes and the upper jaw. Stillbirths in giant pandas are extremely rare, and experts had heard of only three before this one. The second cub's birth 26 hours after the first also was highly unusual, zoo officials said.

Officials said a necropsy was conducted but that the results won't be known for several days. Zoo officials also do not know the surviving cub's sex. It will take two to three weeks before that is determined.

After an emotional weekend, Smith, the senior curator, said zoo officials plan to back off on Monday: "We are going to leave Mei Xiang in peace with her cub."

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