Panda mother’s death leaves more cubs to be hand-raised

By Katie Demeria

The recent death of a female panda named Shama at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal has left three panda cubs to be raised by their handlers.

Those three actually bring the total of hand-raised cubs this year to five, and all seem to be doing very well so far, according to supervisory biologist Ken Lang.

The two other cubs were placed in the handlers’ care for different reasons: one’s mother stopped lactating, and another panda mother had lost three cubs in the past that she attempted to raise herself. Because her cubs were considered genetically valuable, according to Lang, this year her cub was hand-raised to be on the safe side.

But Shama’s cubs lost their mother suddenly, Lang said.

It was only after a necropsy was performed on her body that researchers understood the cause of death. According to a news release, 7-year-old Shama died Aug. 16 due to severe cerebral edema, or swelling in the brain. A microscopic parasite caused the swelling.

“It was out of the blue,” Lang said. “She went down so fast, it was a matter of a couple of days from her eating and acting normally to the point where she had to be euthanized.”

Lang added that the facility has never experienced this type of issue impacting their pandas, and they have had them there for over 35 years.

“We have no idea, as of yet, how the parasite got into her brain,” Lang said.

So far, none of the cubs or Shama’s mate, Rusty, are exhibiting any symptoms, but all have been treated to prevent the incident from reoccurring, according to Lang.

The three male cubs seem to be doing well. Researchers would rather the mother raise her own cubs, Lang said, but working with the cubs does give them the experience to successfully tackle similar problems in the future.

“This happens in the zoo world, in the mother world — they may stop lactating, not have enough milk, or get sick. Even if its just for a week or so, a lot of times the cubs need to be pulled and hand-reared,” Lang said.

The work is keeping the facility’s team very busy, he added.

“You have to stimulate, and you have to be careful how much [formula] you put in,” he said. “We have mathematical formulas to determine how much they need. Every day we go through our formulas, we come up with how much they’re going to be fed, and we watch for any changes in the cubs.”

Researchers monitor all cubs’ weights regularly from the day they are born so they can predict if anything is going wrong in case the cub needs help from handlers. Mothers change each year, he added — one may raise her litter well one year, then not be able to the next.

“It’s a good experience, though it’s not one we would choose to have,” Lang said. “But it’s just part of the zoo world.”

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com