Red panda born June 8 at Sacramento Zoo still not ready for public display

07/30/2013 12:00 AM

07/30/2013 8:39 AM

A rare red panda cub was born at the Sacramento Zoo last month – the first in nine years – but it may be two to five months before the public can see him on exhibit because he remains in a delicate state.

The male cub, which has yet to be named, is being hand-raised by zoo staff after he failed to gain weight and his mother began to display erratic behavior.

"They can be shy and prone to stress," said Dr. Anne Burgdorf, Sacramento Zoo veterinarian. "He's had a little bit of a rough start."

Red panda cubs have a high mortality rate, with only 50 percent making it to the one-month mark.

Zookeepers consider the first six months a crucial stage. They are especially prone to pneumonia, as a result of aspirating food into their lungs because of their strong suckling abilities.

The Sacramento Zoo has housed red pandas since 1999 and currently has six, three female and three male, including the new cub. There is only one breeding pair – Pili and Takeo, the new cub's parents.

So far this year, only four known red panda cubs have been born in the United States – all male. One is in Binghamton, N.Y., two are in Birmingham, Ala., and the fourth is in Sacramento.

The Sacramento Zoo has experienced cub deaths before. Out of six cubs previously born there, three each in 2001 and 2004, two died before adulthood, according to Harrison Edell, general curator at the zoo.

Born on June 8 at night, the newest cub seemed to be doing well initially. Pili, his 2-year-old mom, was attentive.

But zookeepers noticed that after five to seven days he wasn't gaining weight. He weighed 117 grams at birth and should have put on 7 to 10 grams a day.

Since Pili was a first-time mom, zookeepers thought she was either not producing enough milk, or he was just not feeding enough.

So zoo staff started to hand-feed him milk with a lactase supplement, as red pandas are lactose intolerant. They used a tube attached to a syringe instead of a bottle to prevent accidental aspiration.

Pili didn't seem to mind the extra help initially, but when she started to behave inappropriately with the cub, he had to be removed from her care.

"She was moving him a lot (between nest boxes) and holding him inappropriately," said Burgdof.

When the cub was 17 days old, he was taken to the zoo's veterinary hospital, where he was kept in an isolette, a type of incubator that is maintained at a constant 60 degrees, typical of his native climate in Asia.

When the animal handlers moved the cub, they noticed that he had a centimeter-long cut on his left side, which was infected and had to be treated with antibiotics. He later required surgery.

The public can catch a rare glimpse of the cub at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily through the zoo's veterinary hospital window, where he is fed every four hours.

As of Monday, he weighed 735 grams, or 1.6 pounds – just right for his age. Last week, his ears went through a growth spurt, and now it seems to be his legs. The fur on his limbs seemed to get darker. He's also starting to climb a little – at least onto his keepers.

When fully grown, he should weigh 10 to 12 pounds.

Most red pandas are weaned at 3 months, at which point the cub will be given bamboo and biscuits with nutrients added that are needed by red pandas. A red panda eats about 20 percent of its body weight daily.

The new cub still does not spend time with his mother. Burgdorf said that is because she would no longer recognize him as her cub and take care of him. Right now, he sleeps with a small, stuffed fox.

Why a fox? It was the only toy – purchased from Ikea – that had flat fur that couldn't be sucked off, lacked removable plastic eyes or a nose, and was not stuffed with small pellets that could spill out if the seams ripped.

The cub will not be named until he's ready to join the other red pandas in the exhibit, which could be when he's 3 to 6 months old, depending on his progress.

"He will get to see, smell and hear other red pandas," said Burgdorf. "He will know he's a red panda."

Red pandas are considered a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with fewer than 10,000 living in the wild. They eat primarily bamboo, fruit and, sometimes, eggs. Their habitat in Asia is threatened by human encroachment, and poachers also hunt them for their fur and tails.

The total number of red pandas in captivity isn't known, but there are 120 in North American zoos, according to Edell.

Call The Bee's Tillie Fong, (916) 321-1006.

Editor's Note: This story has been changed to correct the year the last time a red panda was born at the Sacramento Zoo. Corrected on July 30, 2013.

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