US mourns death of week-old panda

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Aaron Schauer and his wife planned to see the newborn giant panda at the National Zoo in Washington DC on Sunday, but as they walked to the panda habitat around noon, they heard that the week-old cub had passed away only about two hours earlier.

"We are very disappointed because the newborn panda was one of our reasons for visiting the city," Schauer, from Arkansas, said.

Fourteen-year-old panda Mei Xiang gave birth to the cub on Sunday evening. It was her second Washington-born cub, after Tai Shan in 2005.

Zoo officials said panda keepers and volunteers heard Mei Xiang utter a cry of distress at 9:17 am, and they immediately informed the zoo's veterinary staff.

They turned off the "panda cam" and were able to retrieve the cub for an evaluation at 10:22 am. Veterinarians immediately performed CPR and other life-saving measures but the cub was unresponsive.

There were no outward signs of trauma or infection. The cub, weighing just under 100 grams, was previously described as hairless, the size of a stick of butter, like a pink rat, and very vocal and active.

The cause of death is under investigation and the result will be released later, chief veterinarian Suzan Murray said.

"It is not uncommon" for a panda cub to die within a week, she said.

"The first week is a very sensitive time when the cub doesn't have a good immune system and it is not very strong yet. But at the same time, the cub was looking … so great, and we really didn't think there was anything wrong."

The zoo let the cub stay with Mei Xiang until Mei Xiang made a "honking" sound, after which the staff stepped in to remove the cub.

"It is very hard to tell how sad Mei Xiang is. She is resting and eating a little bit while a group of keepers are watching her closely," she said.

Zoo Director Dennis Kelly said zoo officials immediately contacted their Chinese colleagues in Sichuan, with whom they are now consulting.

The first panda couple to live at the Washington zoo, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, had five cubs, but none survived more than a few days.

Tian Tian and Mei Xiang have lived at the zoo in the US capital since December 2000. Their first offspring, and the zoo's first surviving panda cub, Tai Shan, was born on July 9, 2005.

Tai Shan was sent to China in 2010 for the nation's panda-breeding program.

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