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Zoo Officials Mourn Loss of Panda Cub to Respiratory Arrest

June 27, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Heartbroken zookeepers said Saturday that a panda cub died of respiratory arrest less than four days after its seemingly healthy birth to Ling-Ling at the National Zoo.

Doctors who examined the female cub said it apparently developed an infection that caused fluid to fill its abdomen and lungs, killing it shortly before midnight Friday while it was in its mother’s arms.

″The fluid in the abdominal cavity for the size of that cub was quite large. Fluid in the cavity was the terminal event,″ said Richard Montali, the zoo’s chief pathologist.

He said it apparently was caused by an infection, perhaps peritonitis, although tests are still being done. Final results on the cause of death may not be known for several days.

Montali said there was no sign that the cub, which weighed 140.6 grams, or about 5 ounces, had been crushed or injured in her mother’s large paws.

Ling-Ling, who had three other cubs which died, had been extremely protective of her offspring after its birth early Tuesday morning. She nursed the cub, left it for only a few seconds at a time and always rushed back when it kicked and squealed.

The cub’s loud squealing faded into silence at 11:41 p.m. Friday and the zoo staff became alarmed when it did not move. Ling-Ling licked and cradled the cub for almost an hour and a half before her cage was opened at 1:43 a.m. and she went outdoors, allowing zookeepers to recover the cub’s body.

″There was no reason to suspect anything was wrong,″ said Devra Kleiman, the zoo’s assistant director for research. ″By last night we thought we were over the hump. The really critical period was over.″

The death late Friday frustrated experts who believed the cub would become the first panda bred in capitivity in the United States and dashed the hopes of visitors who came to see the zoo’s new addition.

″We have heartbreaking news for you this morning. Our giant panda cub died last night,″ Lisa Stevens, the zoo’s collection manager, told reporters at a news conference.

Later, the zoo put up a small sign saying: ″We regret to inform you that the panda cub died late Friday night. The cause of death is under investigation.″

One girl who heard the news ran after her mother, asking, ″Why is it dead, mommy? Why is it dead?″

Other tourists expressed their disappointment.

″First you have the anticipation and you’re so excited, and this shock hits you that it’s gone. It’s very cruel,″ said Mary Ottmar, of Atlantic, Iowa.

″They’re Washington’s pets, one of the things that everyone knows, and now everyone around here is sad,″ said Sgt. Jose Rodriguez, who brought his wife and infant son to see the pandas. ″They’ve tried so many times and to put it through this, I’m sure she (Ling-Ling) has feelings and it’s very sad.″

Ling-Ling remained inside her cage in the panda house which has been closed since the birth. Zoo officials said she would remain indoors and the panda house would be closed until at least Monday ″to give her privacy.″

Ling-Ling also began eating again, something she had not done since the birth, shortly after the cub was removed.

Panda experts still expect Ling-Ling to raise a healthy cub someday, although at 18 the giant panda is middle-age and may have few fertile years left.

″Every year we’ve learned something from giant pandas. All we’re gaining, we’re applying to conservation of one of the world’s most endangered species,″ Kleiman said.

Ling-Ling and her mate, Hsing-Hsing, came to the United States as gifts from China in 1972.

Giant pandas are considered an endangered species, with fewer than 1,000 existing in the wild. Six other pandas have been bred in captivity outside China, none of them in the United States.

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